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after Sam Zell led the $8.2bn leveraged buyout of the Tribune Company
in 2007, he was caught on camera spewing profanities at a journalist at
the Orlando Sentinel, one of the newspapers he acquired in the deal.
It was an inauspicious start for what Mr Zell himself was to call the “deal from hell”.
Zell, the cowboy-boot-wearing real estate tycoon, invested $315m of his
own money to take over one of the most storied US media companies.
Tribune is home to newspapers including the Los Angeles Times and
Chicago Tribune, as well as television networks. His audacious bet came
at the peak of a wave of leveraged buyouts in the last decade.
But the deal soon fell apart. It layered debt on the company on the
eve of the collapse of the US economy and the deterioration of the
Tribune is expected to break free from bankruptcy later this year.
Following hearings starting on Thursday, a judge is expected to approve
Tribune’s fourth proposed reorganization plan, setting the stage for
Tribune to take the exit from bankruptcy by the end of the year.
Tribune will emerge from bankruptcy protection as a slimmed-down
business in a different media landscape.
While lawyers have been paid
more than $230m on the deal, Tribune has cut about a quarter of its
the market has become less hospitable for diversified companies. Media
ownership rules in the US make it difficult for conglomerates to exploit
synergies between print and broadcast assets in the same local market.
The fundamentals of some of Tribune’s businesses continue to
deteriorate. Newspaper advertising revenues in the US have halved since
Mr Zell bought the company in 2007.
Tribune’s most recent financial projections anticipate declining
revenues at the publishing division through 2014, though the division is
expected to remain profitable.
“Tribune is in a cycle of decline,” said James O’Shea, a former
editor at the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times who wrote a book
about Tribune called The Deal from Hell: How Moguls and Wall Street Plundered Great American Newspapers.
To many industry observers, Tribune is a case study of the erosion of US newspapers.
After boom times in the 1990s, more than a dozen big newspaper
companies in the US have filed for bankruptcy protection, said Ken
Doctor, a newspaper analyst.
“It’s the decline of what once were the powerhouses of journalism,” he said.
Tribune’s broadcast assets face a somewhat brighter future, with the
local television business proving resilient. Financial projections show
the broadcasting division generating increasingly more operating cash
flow than the publishing division up to 2014, despite having roughly
half the revenues this year.
The divergent futures for the TV and print businesses lead many in
the media industry to believe that Tribune will sell assets soon after
it comes out of bankruptcy.
Though some media companies, including News Corp, hold broadcast and newspaper assets, others are breaking apart.
The most likely scenario, say people familiar with the company, is
that Tribune will sell its newspapers to a host of local ownership
groups. These people say that a sale of its broadcast assets is also
possible, but less likely.
Fueling speculation are court filings that show Tribune reorganizing
its business in a way that would make it easier to sell off its
Billionaire Eli Broad has signaled interest in buying the Los
Angeles Times. A group of Chicago investors who recently bought another
local newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times, had been reported to be
interested in the Tribune.
But last month Michael Ferro, chairman of the Sun-Times, said his group was not interested.
Mr Broad believes that the Los Angeles Times should be locally owned,
a spokeswoman said. “If there was a group of wealthy families or
foundations that would be interested in purchasing the Los Angeles
Times, he would be interested in joining them,” she added.
Before any decisions are made about what Tribune will or won’t sell,
the company is likely to see an overhaul of its management. A new board
will be appointed as part of the exit from bankruptcy and could replace
Tribune’s management team.
The fate of Tribune is a cautionary tale for media companies to invest in the future during the good years, said Mr O’Shea.
Tribune “just tried to recreate the past,” he said.
Ed Atorino, media analyst at Benchmark, a research firm, said the timing of the deal was especially bad.
Mr Zell “borrowed money to buy the companies. The bottom fell out of the economy. The bottom fell out of newspapers”, he said.