Kara Swisher to Patrick Soon-Shiong: How could you let Alden buy Tribune?

Kara Swisher. Photo (cc) 2017 by nrkbeta.

I just skimmed the transcript of Kara Swisher’s interview with Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong. It gets off to a slow start — but eventually she lets him have it in the chops over his pathetic rationalizations for not stopping the hedge fund Alden Global Capital from buying Tribune Publishing earlier this year.

The short version, for those who aren’t sure what I’m talking about: Soon-Shiong, a billionaire surgeon and medical entrepreneur, owned 24% of Tribune, which publishes nine major-market daily newspapers. He could have blocked Alden by voting no or by voting to abstain, thus giving Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum more time to put a deal together — or to see if another buyer might emerge.

Instead, Soon-Shiong declined to vote at all, which allowed the deal to go through. Here’s the heart of what Swisher told him:

So essentially you’re saying I couldn’t save them. And I’m — I don’t quite know what to say. There’s some point where you do make a stand and say, you can’t do this. And especially with Alden Global Capital having a reputation it does, you might have stood up for it. You might have said no. But you felt the current owners weren’t going to really do anything with your money. As you said, they had an agenda. It seems like you have a theory of their agenda. But they weren’t going to make it better. And so any port in the storm, is that what you’re saying?

Soon-Shiong’s hedging is pretty much in line with his recent interview with Brian Stelter of CNN. But this response screams out:

Well, it’s a little more than that, right? I think there should be enough civic responsibility in Chicago, enough civic responsibility in Florida, civic responsibility wherever these — Baltimore. And obviously, as you knew, there were certain billionaires and multimillionaires. So to be fair, it should be really the responsibility of people living in their community. I live in California. So I can’t personally be responsible for Florida or Baltimore and Chicago.

Baltimore? Baltimore? Is the good doctor kidding? Bainum originally had an agreement to acquire The Baltimore Sun from Alden after Tribune was sold and then donate the Sun to a nonprofit. After he concluded that Alden was jerking him around, he tried to put together a group that would buy the entire chain. (Bainum is now launching a nonprofit news project in Baltimore.)

Look, it’s great that Soon-Shiong seemed to be committed to the Times and his other paper, The San Diego Union-Tribune. But if you look up the word “disingenuous” in the dictionary, you just might find his photo.

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Spurned by Tribune, Stewart Bainum moves ahead with nonprofit news in Baltimore

Baltimore. Photo (cc) 2014 by Patrick Gillespie.

Among the worst outcomes of Stewart Bainum’s failed bid to purchase Tribune Publishing is that he lost out on an earlier deal to buy The Baltimore Sun and donate it to a nonprofit organization.

The hedge fund Alden Global Capital had originally agreed to spin off the Sun to Bainum after buying Tribune’s nine major-market dailies. That deal fell through when Bainum, a Baltimore hotel magnate, balked at Alden’s terms and tried to buy the entire chain.

So it’s very good news that Bainum appears to be moving ahead with a nonprofit venture that would compete with the Sun. Rick Edmonds of Poynter reported earlier this week that Bainum is advertising for a chief product officer who’ll work for a “well-funded startup” aimed at becoming “a new paradigm for digital first, cross-channel local media.”

The project will include the web, mobile, terrestrial and satellite radio and video, both on television and online, according to the ad, which adds that the “vision is to be the leading provider of news and lifestyle content in the Baltimore area.”

Bainum was originally willing to pay $65 million for the Sun. Assuming that money is still on the table, this should be a well-funded regional news product. Bloomberg and the Lenfest Institute are involved, too, though Edmonds suggests their role will be minimal.

One aspect I find interesting is the cross-platform nature of the project. The biggest challenge facing online-only media is getting the word out that they exist. As a former newspaper executive once told me, the problem with dumping the print edition in favor of digital is that print is essentially a billboard for digital. If print goes away, you disappear to non-subscribers. Bainum might avoid that problem by moving into radio and television as well as digital.

I also wonder whether there’s an underlying strategy to wrest the Sun away from Alden. Given the way the hedge fund is already decimating its holdings, which include the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News and the Hartford Courant, there is little doubt that the Bainum project will be a better, more comprehensive news organization than the Sun on the day that it debuts.

If the Sun’s audience and advertisers (yes, nonprofits can accept ads) move en masse to Bainum’s venture, Alden might prove willing to walk away.

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Why revelations about Alden’s acquisition of Tribune should force a do-over

Photo (cc) 2012 by the Chicago Tribune

Could Alden Global Capital’s acquisition of Tribune Publishing be headed for a do-over? Julie Reynolds, who’s been reporting on the hedge fund’s evisceration of newspapers for years, has written a fascinating story for the Nieman Journalism Lab suggesting that the $633 million deal may have been illegal.

Alden, which already owned 32% of Tribune’s papers, pledged to pay $375 million in cash in order to bring its share up to 100%. But Reynolds reports that Alden didn’t actually have the cash, a fact that may have been known only to the three members of Tribune’s board who were affiliated with the hedge fund.

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As soon as the transaction was consummated, Alden forced the papers to borrow about $300 million. That included $60 million from Alden’s other newspaper chain, MediaNews Group, at an eye-popping interest rate of 13%. As everyone predicted, Alden has gone on a cost-cutting rampage, offering buyouts throughout the chain.

Nieman Foundation curator Ann Marie Lipinski, a former editor of Tribune’s largest paper, the Chicago Tribune, tweeted, “The scale of talent leaving the Chicago Tribune is staggering.

Reynolds also reports that the full Tribune board may have been left in the dark about a private meeting that Tribune board member and Alden founder Randall Smith had with Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum last year.

You may recall that Bainum had initially worked out an agreement under which Alden would buy Tribune’s nine major-market dailies and then sell one of them, The Baltimore Sun, to Bainum, who planned to donate it to a nonprofit organization. After Bainum concluded that Alden was trying to gouge him, he tried to put together a bid for the entire chain. Most if not all of the papers would have been spun off to local buyers. But he was never able to put together a firm offer, and the board went with Alden instead. Alden is keeping all nine papers, including the Sun.

As Reynolds notes, the Tribune board spurned Bainum’s higher offer because the financing was not in place — and ignored the reality that Alden’s wasn’t in place, either. She writes:

Given the healthy profits Tribune has generated over the last several quarters, the cuts are there for just one reason: to achieve higher margins for Alden. Randall Smith will get richer while communities served by Tribune are starved of the information they need.

If Reynolds is correct in asserting that laws were broken in order to pave the way for Alden’s acquisition of Tribune, then the punishment ought to be more than a fine and a slap on the wrist. The sale should be voided and the Tribune board should be forced to vote again.

Maybe this time Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Times, can be persuaded to stop Alden. As a 25% owner of Tribune before the sale, Soon-Shiong could have said no. Instead, he abstained, and did it in a manner that allowed the transaction to go through.

I’m also lighting up the Bat Signal again for Jeff Bezos.

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A major setback in the quest to save Tribune Publishing from Alden Global Capital

Col. Robert McCormick, legendary publisher of the Chicago Tribune

There was some very bad news Saturday in the race to save Tribune Publishing from the hedge fund Alden Global Capital. Hansjörg Wyss, who made his billions in the medical device field, ended his relationship with the hotel magnate Stewart Bainum, according to Katie Robertson of The New York Times.

Bainum insists he’s going to go it alone, but this is a major setback. Bainum and Wyss had outbid Alden, but it still wasn’t clear if they were going to succeed. Now Bainum has to find new investors.

Wyss’ main interest was the Chicago Tribune; apparently he got under the hood and discovered that the finances were a mess. He also reportedly came to the conclusion that his hope of transforming the Tribune into a national paper along the lines of what Jeff Bezos did with The Washington Post was unrealistic. Too bad that serving the third-largest metro area in the U.S. wasn’t good enough for him.

Back when this all started, Alden was going to increase its share in Tribune from 32% to 100%, keep eight of the chain’s nine major-market newspapers, and spin off The Baltimore Sun and several smaller sister papers to Bainum — who, in turn, planned to take them nonprofit. Bainum decided to bid for the entire chain after he concluded that Alden was chiseling him on fees, as Lukas Alpert reported in The Wall Street Journal.

What’s not clear is what happens if we return to the first iteration of the deal. Will Bainum still get The Baltimore Sun? Or is Alden now prepared to take charge of the entire chain — and start putting the squeeze on newsrooms that are already a shadow of their former selves?

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How a campaign to save The Baltimore Sun may topple Alden’s ambitions

Photo (cc) 2010 by Brent Payne

Washington Post reporters Elahe Izadi and Sarah Ellison have a terrific account of how the campaign to save Tribune Publishing from Alden Global Capital got started.

It began with Save Our Sun, a group launched by several Baltimore Sun reporters. And as recently as a few weeks ago, it looked like they had won a significant but limited victory: Alden would take ownership of eight of Tribune’s nine major-market dailies, spinning the Sun and several affiliated papers off to nonprofit ownership.

That’s when things got more interesting. When Stewart Bainum, the hotel magnate behind the nonprofit plan, grew frustrated with Alden’s terms, he put together a group of billionaires and outbid Alden for the entire chain. Though Bainum’s victory is not yet assured, things are moving in the right direction. The papers would be spun off to local owners, some of them nonprofits, which would represent the biggest victory over chain journalism in many years.

Among the papers that would be saved from Alden’s clutches: the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News and the Hartford Courant.

Meanwhile, Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab explains how Alden can win even if it loses: the hedge fund already owns 32% of Tribune. So if the Bainum group ends up paying a premium, Alden will be among the beneficiaries.

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‘Mogul Roulette,’ or the totally random destruction of local news

Previously published at GBH News.

In response to the rampaging vulture capitalism that was threatening to destroy their newspaper, union employees at the Hartford Courant last year launched a campaign to find a nonprofit organization that would save their jobs and the journalism their community depends on.

Not only did they fail, but the situation at the Courant, the oldest continuously published newspaper in America, just got infinitely worse.

Meanwhile, 300 miles to the south, a similar effort was under way to save The Baltimore Sun. It paid off big-time, as the Sun and several sister papers are now on the verge of being acquired by a nonprofit foundation that will operate them in the public interest.

No doubt you’ve read a lot here and elsewhere about the local news crisis, and about the role of hedge funds and corporate chain owners in hollowing out once-great newspapers that were already struggling.

Yet what we don’t talk about often enough is the sheer random nature of it all — and why we assume there’s nothing that can be done about a hedge fund destroying a paper here or a nonprofit or benevolent billionaire saving a paper there. We have been so conditioned to thinking that the untrammeled forces of the market must be allowed to play out that we’ve lost sight of what we’re losing. It shouldn’t be this way.

Last week was a particularly fraught moment in the collapse of local journalism.

First we learned that the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, the most avaricious newspaper owner in the country (don’t just take my word for it; as Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post puts it, “Being bought by Alden is the worst possible fate for the newspapers and the communities involved”), was making a $630 million bid to increase its share of Tribune Publishing — whose holdings include the Courant — from 32% to 100%.

The announcement came with at least a little bit of good news: Alden would spin off The Baltimore Sun to a nonprofit. Even better, Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune, was in a position to block Alden if he so chose.

Rick Edmonds of Poynter speculated that wouldn’t happen. But hope springs eternal — or at least until last Friday. That’s when Lukas Alpert of The Wall Street Journal reported that Soon-Shiong himself might be looking to get out of the newspaper business less than three years after he got in. Worse, Soon-Shiong was said to be looking at offloading his papers to a larger media group. Though neither Alpert nor his soures said so, Alden would be the most likely buyer.

Soon-Shiong, fortunately, denied he’d lost interest in newspapers. But Alpert is a good reporter, so it’s hard to believe that there isn’t something to it.

Call it Mogul Roulette.

So let’s survey the landscape, shall we? Tribune’s papers, which include the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News, the Orlando Sentinel, the Courant and others, will be gutted if the Alden deal goes through. In fact, the Courant is already operating with neither a printing press nor a newsroom.

On the other hand, The Baltimore Sun has been granted a new lease on life. We don’t know what’s going to happen in L.A. or San Diego. And, here and there, large regional papers with either strong private ownership (The Boston Globe, the Portland Press Herald, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, The Seattle Times) or nonprofit control (The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Salt Lake Tribune, the Tampa Bay Times and, soon, the Sun) are providing their communities with the news and information they need, even if they still face challenges.

This situation is unacceptable. Reliable news is vital to democracy, and though we don’t necessarily need legacy newspapers to deliver it, they remain the most widespread and efficient means for doing so. As the media scholar Alex Jones has written, newspapers continue to produce the overwhelming share of accountability journalism that we need to govern ourselves — what Jones calls the “iron core.” We shouldn’t be dependent on whether the newspaper in our community is owned by someone who believes in journalism’s civic mission or who simply sees it as a piggy bank to be depleted before moving on to the next victim.

Several years ago I had a conversation about newspaper ownership with Victor Pickard, a scholar at Penn’s Annenberg School; he would later go on to write “Democracy without Journalism?,” a call for (among other things) greatly increased funding for public media. Why, I asked him, should communities have so little control over who owns their local newspaper?

We didn’t come up with any answers that day, although Pickard did suggest that antitrust laws be used more aggressively. These days, unfortunately, we are dealing with the antitrust legacy of Robert Bork, who developed a theory that any amount of monopolization is just fine as long as it doesn’t drive up prices.

The Bork doctrine makes no sense in the shrinking newspaper business. At one time Tribune Publishing, then known as tronc, proposed uniting the L.A. Times, the Union-Tribune and, in the middle, the Orange County Register, whose previous owner, Aaron Kushner, had steered into bankruptcy. Soon-Shiong could have been the savior of all three papers instead of just the two he bought from tronc. Instead, a federal judge ruled that such a combination would violate antitrust laws because it might drive up the price of ads. (Your honor, we need to drive up the price of ads.) Yet, paradoxically, Bork’s theories say nothing about giant chains stretching across the country and destroying local newspapers.

What comes next? Maybe Soon-Shiong will step forward and outbid Alden for the rest of Tribune, placing the entire chain in much better hands. Or maybe he’ll sell to Alden. In any case, it’s unacceptable for the fate of local journalism to be left to the whims of unbridled capitalism. We need to start thinking about what alternatives to that model might look like.

Will Patrick Soon-Shiong stand up to Alden — or sell his newspapers?

Patrick Soon-Shiong. Photo (cc) 2019 by the World Economic Forum.

It was quite a week for Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire surgeon who owns the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune.

On Tuesday came the news that the hedge fund Alden Global Capital was offering $630 million to boost its share of Tribune Publishing from 32% to 100%. Alden would take Tribune private and then, presumably, do what it does: slash the newsrooms of the Chicago Tribune, the Hartford Courant and others to ribbons. One unexpected benefit: The Baltimore Sun and several sister papers would be acquired by a nonprofit foundation.

The complicating factor was that Soon-Shiong, the second-largest Tribune shareholder at 24%, has the right to veto Alden’s acquisition. Would he? Probably not, guessed Poynter analyst Rick Edmonds. “I would bet that getting out with a good return on his investment will be Soon-Shiong’s main or sole objective,” Edmonds wrote.

Then, on Friday, came a bombshell. Lukas Alpert of The Wall Street Journal reported that Soon-Shiong was looking to get out of the newspaper business less than three years after he bought the Times and the Union-Tribune from Tribune’s absurdly named predecessor, tronc.

“The move,” Alpert wrote, “marks an abrupt about-face for Mr. Soon-Shiong, who had vowed to restore stability to the West Coast news institution and has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the paper in an effort to turn it around.” Soon-Shiong denied it, tweeting, “WSJ article inaccurate. We are committed to the @LATimes.”

We are left wondering what’s correct — “people familiar with the matter,” as Alpert described his sources, or Soon-Shiong’s on-the-record denial. Alpert is a good reporter, and presumably his sources are aware of at least some frustration on Soon-Shiong’s part. What’s especially worrisome is that Alpert’s sources say Soon-Shiong has come to believe his papers would be better off “as part of a larger media group.” Other than Alden or Gannett, it’s hard to imagine any other options. If Soon-Shiong is really tired of the business, why not sell them to a nonprofit?

Nevertheless, it’s hard for me not to think about all the times that John and Linda Henry have been rumored to be selling The Boston Globe since they bought it in 2013. Every so often they deny it, such as in 2018 and 2020. And there certainly haven’t been any signs that they’re selling.

Still, the Henry rumors never made it into The Wall Street Journal. Let’s hope that, whatever else comes out of the Tribune meltdown, Southern California’s major newspapers remain within the relatively safe orbit of Soon-Shiong’s protection.

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A dark day for Tribune’s storied newspapers — but great news in Baltimore

There is terrible news to report tonight for readers and employees of the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News and the Hartford Courant — but good news in Baltimore.

A deal that had been in the works since late 2020 is close to being consummated, with the hedge fund Alden Global Capital on the verge of becoming the sole owner of Tribune Publishing. As has been documented on numerous occasions here and elsewhere, Alden is the most avaricious of the chain newspaper owners, squeezing the life (and the journalism) out of its properties.

Lukas I. Alpert reports in The Wall Street Journal that Alden is paying an estimated $630 million to bring its share of Tribune from 32% to 100%. Tribune, currently a publicly traded company, will go private.

Last month the News Guild, the union that represents workers at seven of Tribune’s nine papers, filed a complaint with the Securities and Exchange Commission charging irregularities in Alden’s bid. No word on whether that challenge is over or if it will continue.

Meanwhile, there’s good news in Baltimore. As part of the transaction, Tribune will sell The Baltimore Sun, The Capital Gazette of Annapolis, Maryland, and several other publications to a nonprofit organization called the Sunlight for All Institute. The sale caps a campaign of many months on the part of community activists.

Joseph Lichterman of the Lenfest Institute, the nonprofit that owns The Philadelphia Inquirer, tweeted:

It’s a ray of sunshine — or a rainbow, if you will — on what is otherwise another dark day for American newspapers.

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A Baltimore TV station’s incendiary ‘error’

A television station in Baltimore edited video of protesters calling for the jailing of “killer cops” to make it sound like they were chanting “kill a cop.” I find it horrifying that anyone this side of the white supremacist movement would do something so irresponsible at a time when relations between the police and communities of color are already fraught.

David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun reports that WBFF, a Sinclair-owned Fox affiliate, has called the incident “an error” and posted an apology on its website (which I can’t find on  the station’s home page or its news page this morning). Some error. In fact, the protesters were chanting, “We won’t stop. We can’t stop ’til killer cops are in cell blocks.” The footage was recorded at a protest in Washington on Sunday and was carried by C-SPAN.

If this really was an error, it’s a matter of someone making some pretty ugly assumptions about the protesters. The fact that the line “are in cell blocks” was edited out raises serious questions about whether this was truly an error. Mediaite has posted the original WBFF video. You should take a look.

Is this the media fail of the year? I think so. Bad as Rolling Stone’s false story about a sexual assault at UVA was, WBFF’s ignorant stunt could incite violence. Broadcast stations such as WBFF are licensed and regulated by the FCC. I am not a fan of letting the government poke into matters involving the First Amendment. But in this case I’d say a hearing is in order. We need to know how this happened.