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Union-Tribune owner’s war of escalating insults

Yet another spin-off rumored if Gannett prevails

Michael Ferro
  • Michael Ferro
  • from a Bloomberg broadcast

If today's economically besieged newspapers are cutting back their press runs, the same can't be said of the voluminous verbiage piling up in the war for control of Chicago-based Tribune publishing, owner of the San Diego Union-Tribune and L.A. Times.

The fate of the U-T, owned by Richard Nixon’s media pal Jim Copley, later by his widow Helen, and finally by her son David, before being sold to a bizarre succession of would-be media magnates, including Palestinian-rooted Beverly Hills billionaire Tom Gores and GOP kingpin Douglas Manchester, is still up to Tribune, but maybe not for long.

Jack Griffin

Jack Griffin

As previously reported, Tribune's current overlord, Midwest wheeler-dealer Michael Ferro, seized control three months ago by obtaining 17 percent of the company’s stock for $44.4 million.

He quickly used that leverage to oust then-CEO Jack Griffin, setting out on a self-baked mission to save the company with yet-to-be-disclosed online wizardry.

Along the way, Ferro also gained notoriety by appropriating for himself Oscar tickets intended for L.A. Times reporters covering the event.

Susanna Homan

Susanna Homan

from Chicago Reader archives

He's also been accused by some of threatening the journalistic integrity of Chicago magazine, part of his Tribune empire, by appointing as editor his longtime friend and associate Susanna Homan.

"The hiring of Homan, who once said that she wanted to understand a story pitch in a single sentence, is a new low," wrote Steve Rhodes last month in Crain's Chicago Business.

"Homan is also an ethical headache, who, until she was called out publicly for the practice in 2013, took freebies from luxury companies she promoted in her daily appearances on Fox 32 Chicago.”

Added Rhodes, “Which only makes it worse that she will serve as Chicago magazine's editor and publisher, as it seems all of Ferro's editors will do now. This is a recipe for journalistic disaster. Apparently Ferro wants to save journalism by destroying it."

Jeff Light

Jeff Light

U-T editor Jeff Light, one of those who assumed the dual editor-publisher role under Ferro, denied the change would present a conflict of interest for him, though observers note that Ferro's close financial relationship with at least one NFL owner could raise questions about the paper's coverage of the Chargers stadium controversy here.

Last week, USA Today publisher Gannett entered the melodrama with a $12.25 per-share all-cash bid for Tribune, noting in a statement, "By combining, we would create a company with the financial stability and flexibility equipped to preserve journalistic integrity, high standards and excellence for years to come."

Ferro hasn't seen it that way, at least not at the current offering price, and Tribune has lashed out in financial filings, accusing Gannett of being "erratic and unreliable" and "playing games."

Now Gannett has volleyed back by asking Tribune Company shareholders to withhold their vote for Ferro and other Tribune boardmembers at the company's 2016 annual meeting on June 2.

Bob Dickey

Bob Dickey

“We intend to give Tribune stockholders the opportunity to send a clear message to the Tribune Board that its lack of engagement with our Board and management team regarding our highly compelling, premium offer for $12.25 per share in cash is unacceptable,” says Gannett CEO Bob Dickey in a May 2 news release.

"We therefore want to make you, Tribune stockholders, aware of our all-cash offer given Tribune’s attempts to delay constructive engagement," adds a proxy statement.

"We believe a WITHHOLD vote on the Company Nominees would send a clear signal that you, as a Tribune stockholder, want your Board to engage in a meaningful dialogue with us regarding a possible business combination between our two companies. We are soliciting your vote to send a clear message to Tribune’s Board of Directors to engage with us and explore this avenue for maximizing stockholder value."

Replied Tribune:

"Gannett’s campaign to suggest that our board has not taken its proposal with due seriousness is misleading and disingenuous.”

Added the company's statement, “The facts belie their public statements. This latest ploy to encourage Tribune Publishing shareholders to withhold their votes at the 2016 annual meeting is a distraction from the real issue, which is whether the Gannett proposal is in the best interest of the Tribune shareholders.”

The latest struggle over Tribune and its properties has been largely met by silence at the U-T, which has spent many tortured years twisting in the troubled financial winds besetting the newspaper business.

Eli Broad

Eli Broad

Gannett's emergence as a potential Tribune acquirer has triggered yet another bout of speculation in Los Angeles regarding the long-expressed ambition of of billionaire Democrat and charter-school champion Eli Broad to buy both the L.A. Times and the U-T, turning the combination into a powerful political vehicle.

Ken Doctor

Ken Doctor

"If there is any property that Gannett does not keep, it’s the L.A. Times and San Diego Union-Tribune,media blogger Ken Doctor told the L.A. Weekly.

"These do not offer the same kind of synergies as the other papers do."

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