More on the Battle to Control Tribune Publishing: Stories from the New York Times and Washington Post

Following up on yesterday’s Wall Street Journal story headlined “New Bidder Emerges for Tribune Publishing”:

The New York Times has a story by Katie Robertson headlined “Tribune Publishing Considers New Offer From Surprise Bidders.”

The Washington Post has a long piece by Elahe Izadi and Sarah Ellison headlined “The battle for Tribune: Inside the campaign to find news owners for a legendary group of newspapers.” From the story:

Last year, as a group of Baltimore Sun reporters embarked on a long-shot endeavor to find a new owner that could save their paper from a hedge-fund takeover, a former Maryland politician gave them a piece of advice.

Treat this like a political campaign.

The worried reporters would need to recruit community allies. Hire a public relations firm to sway public opinion. And most crucially: Figure out how to find rich people who might be persuaded to finance a rescue plan.

That meeting over coffee with Ted Venetoulis — a former Baltimore County executive who unofficially advised Maryland’s largest private foundation — launched what would become the Save Our Sun campaign.

It would eventually inspire a national effort to keep nearly a dozen newspapers owned by the same chain from being bought by Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund with a singular reputation for gutting newsrooms.

Now, a coalition of wealthy business executives has put together an 11th-hour offer to buy not just the Baltimore Sun but the entire Tribune Publishing chain that a special committee of the Tribune’s board said Monday “would reasonably be expected” to beat out Alden’s offer. The all-cash proposal from Stewart Bainum Jr., chairman of Maryland-based Choice Hotels International, and Wyoming-based Swiss billionaire Hansjorg Wyss, is valued at $680 million, about $50 million more than Alden has proposed paying.

The duo then plans to sell many of the individual papers to local owners. Bainum is primarily interested in the Baltimore Sun, where he has told associates he wants to expand the newsroom. Wyss has told colleagues he plans to invest in the Chicago Tribune, according to an executive who is familiar with the discussions.

It’s the culmination of years of despair from journalists and civic-minded organizers who have watched their local paper shrink under corporate consolidation and broader economic forces, only to be threatened by what to them seems like a death blow.

Alden could still prevail. But the counteroffer is the closest Tribune reporters have gotten to an alternative future.

Bainum is “the hero here if he pulls off the purchase, or perhaps, even if he doesn’t,” said Sun education reporter Liz Bowie, who helped form Save Our Sun.

But although millionaires and political insiders were crucial to the rescue plan, so too were the reporters who work at the threatened papers. “It’s going to be tough enough with the journalists on board,” said Venetoulis, once a publisher of now-shuttered regional newspapers. “Without them, it’s impossible.”…

On Thursday, Bainum and Wyss submitted a proposal to buy Tribune and all of its newspapers for $18.50 per share, all cash, more than a dollar-a-share higher than Alden’s offer.

If the deal goes through, the Sun, the Chicago Tribune, the Courant and every other Tribune paper would transfer to Bainum’s Newslight group, which could in turn sell them to local owners and nonprofit groups. Two wealthy Florida business executives have already signaled interest.

But nothing is certain yet. The Tribune company’s board recommended selling to Alden several weeks ago, and it has yet to reverse that, despite its special committee projecting the Newslight group may have the better offer.

And the Newslight group still has to comb through all of Tribune’s financials to make sure it wants the chain. “There can be no assurance that the discussions with Newslight and its principals will result in a binding proposal,” the special committee told its shareholders Monday.

A final deal will have to be approved by Tribune shareholders.

Still, the three Sun reporters at that clandestine hotel meeting last year sometimes can’t believe everything that has happened since. “We’re journalists and we can be sort of cynical by nature,” said Reed. “But I do look back at how much we’ve accomplished in the past year and think — my gosh, we’re doing it. It’s working.”

Even if it all falls apart now, “we really succeeded by getting this far,” said Dance. “Because people are talking seriously about saving local journalism.”

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