Will latest tronc rift end badly for Union-Tribune?

Board room battle reported at Chicago-based chain with funny name

Michael Ferro
  • Michael Ferro
  • from a Bloomberg broadcast

San Diego's Union-Tribune, accustomed to more than 60 years of family fights and corporate ruptures as it slowly ran downhill, appears in for more of the same, judging by a March 17 report in Crain's Chicago Business, which says a "major rift" has opened in the boardroom of tronc, the company then called Tribune Publishing that acquired the U-T less than two years ago in an $85 million deal with local Republican kingpin Douglas Manchester.

Douglas Manchester

Douglas Manchester

Tom Gores

Tom Gores

David Copley

David Copley

Helen Copley

Helen Copley

Donald Tang

Donald Tang

Patrick Soon-Shiong

Patrick Soon-Shiong

Before Manchester got ahold of it in 2011, the ever-struggling U-T was owned by Platinum Equity, a vulture capital outfit run by Tom Gores. The Beverly Hills billionaire with roots in Palestine acquired the operation in 2009 from an ailing David Copley, who inherited the truncated publishing empire on the death of his mother Helen at 81 in August 2004.

She ended up with the keys to San Diego's publishing kingdom in the 1970s after an ugly legal battle with two adopted children over the estate of her late husband Jim Copley, who himself had waged a nasty courthouse engagement in the mid-1950s with his adoptive brother Bill for control of what was then known as the Copley Press.

When Tribune Publishing took over the U-T from Manchester in May 2015, employees and the paper's dwindling readership hoped that the tumult had finally ended, but the seeming curse continued with last year's arrival of Chicago's Michael Ferro, whose Merrick Ventures bought a big chunk of company stock, unceremoniously ousted Tribune's previous management, and changed Tribune's hallowed name to tronc.

Next emerged controversial biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong, one of the richest men in Los Angeles, recruited by Ferro last year as an investor and vice-chairman of tronc's board to ward off an ultimately failed takeover attempt by giant newspaper chain Gannett.

In addition to his cash, Soon-Shiong was also supposed to bring robots and artificial intelligence to the newsrooms of the tronc chain, including the L.A. Times and the U-T, to "attrit" the company's already-shrinking ranks of human workers.

But tronc, which had promised to develop a bevy of news gathering and distribution gizmos in an infamous promotional video, announced last week that it had done a deal with the Washington Post, owned by Seattle billionaire Jeff Bezos, for a set of online publishing tools to be hosted by Bezos-run Amazon.

"Thanks LA Times for choosing WaPo's Arc Publishing for your digital platform, and kudos to tech team at The Post!" Bezos posted on Twitter after the deal was announced.

Now, according to Crain’s, Ferro is pushing Soon-Shiong out of his board vice-chairmanship in a murky fight for corporate control. In addition, another Angeleno, Donald Tang, whose Tang Media Partners "focuses on the global entertainment and media business with particular emphasis on transactions between China and the United States," says its website, is also exiting the board.

The mixed messages from the company have continued, with a putative $100 million deal for Us magazine collapsing in mystery last week before owner Wenner Media unloaded the title to the National Enquirer.

Meanwhile, Soon-Shiong and his health technology company NantHealth have come under fire following an exposé by the medical industry reporting site STAT, alleging that much of a $12 million contribution by Soon-Shiong's nonprofit foundations to the University of Utah made a round-trip back to his company in the form of contracts for genetic sequencing.

tronc video

tronc promotional video

tronc promotional video

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Comments

All I can say to those hipsters in Chi is that there is less and less content in the product of their principal legacy news corporation, the Los Angeles Times. This instrument of their attention and object of my affection is becoming slimmer by the week -- Mondays are shockingly lightweight -- as more and more "reporters" give way to"special correspondents" who seem not to be staffers. But there's no sign of AI yet.

"But there's no sign of AI yet." You mean Actual Intellect? ;-)

All this fighting over the dying, decaying corpse of a relic of the last century.

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