Tribune exits bankruptcy, looks to unload newspapers

Rupert Murdoch is considered a potential buyer, but may not be the white knight that some in the industry hope for.

By Jonathan Berr Dec 31, 2012 2:41PM
Image: Newspaper on front step of house (Siri Stafford/Photodisc/Getty Images)Tribune's long, strange trip through bankruptcy has come to an end. Now, comes the hard part -- figuring out what to do next.

The privately held Chicago company may be trying to unload its six newspapers, which include the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Hartford Courant. Earlier this month, Bloomberg News reported that Tribune was interviewing bankers to sell its papers. 

Media tycoon Rupert Murdoch is viewed as a potential buyer for the Los Angeles and Chicago papers, the biggest ones in the Tribune line-up. Before Tribune's new board of directors starts spending Murdoch's money, however, a reality check is in order.

Murdoch took a huge risk in 2007 when he spent $5.6 billion acquiring Dow Jones & Co., publisher of the Wall Street Journal, paying a whopping 67% premium for a company that no one else wanted at the time.

The Australian tycoon would have difficulty making such a large bet on newspapers today now that his News Corp. (NWS) media empire is splitting in two. His circumstances have changed. He can no longer count on profitable entertainment assets such as 20th Century Fox to underwrite media properties with shaky finances, such as the New York Post. The Journal reportedly is profitable, but a company spokesman didn't provide any details to Advertising Age, which added that "cost controls will remain crucial to the Journal's bottom line." The same could be said for large dailies in markets such as Chicago and Los Angeles.

The Tribune papers are attractive to Murdoch, whose publishing assets lost $2.1 billion in the fiscal year ending June 30, for many reasons. Acquiring the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune may help reduce overhead at the Journal by enabling the papers to consolidate printing and circulation operations. The Tribune could print and distribute the Journal in Chicago, for example. Bureaus in places such as Washington could be consolidated.  Instead of renting three offices, the company could rent one. The extent of the synergies is probably limited since there is little overlap among the Tribune papers.

Billionaire David Geffen reportedly offered $2 billion to buy the LA Times in 2006, a deal Tribune foolishly turned down. The entire publishing business now has a value of $633 million, according to media reports. Tribune is eager to sell its papers and Murdoch may be an eager buyer. But perhaps not as eager as he might have been a few years ago.  

--Jonathan Berr does not own shares of the listed stocks.  Follow him on Twitter @jdberr.

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