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Real-estate mogul Sam Zell has won a bidding war to buy the Tribune Company. The Chicago-based media giant announced today it'll pay shareholders $34 a share to go private. The Tribune owns 11 daily newspapers, 23 television stations and the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs are to be sold to help pay down debt, and as NPR's David Folkenflik reports, the future remains cloudy for the company's journalists and its journalism.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: If the deal goes through as planned, the controlling stake in Tribune will be held by the Chicago billionaire Sam Zell, a real-estate tycoon who's putting up just $315 million of his own money for a company valued at $8.2 billion.
The Tribune Company owns some of the most distinguished newspapers in the business, including the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Baltimore Sun. But like other newspaper companies, Tribune has suffered as advertisers have migrated to the Web, and shareholders forced a sale.
Former Newsday editor Howie Schneider says taking the company private protects the papers from investors' complaints, but Schneider says there's no guarantee of a happy ending.
Mr. HOWIE SCHNEIDER (Former Editor, Newsday): If the newspapers continue to erode, if serious journalism is not supported, then I think this will be a terrible move.
FOLKENFLIK: Tribune eliminated Newsday's foreign bureaus and most of its Washington reporters, and Schneider left the paper over related budget cuts.
Mr. SCHNEIDER: My former colleagues have been stuck in a spiral that continues to say, the only way we can continue our profit margins is to cut good journalism, and that is to me a death spiral.
FOLKENFLIK: A Tribune staffer who heard a briefing from executives today said employees should expect serious additional cuts within the next few months. Zell, who's to become Tribune's new chairman, wasn't available today for comment, but Zell has said he sees the company as an investment and isn't particularly interested in the news business. That's a very different sentiment than that held by Chicago Tribune Metro columnist Mary Schmich.
Ms. MARY SCHMICH (Metro Columnist, Chicago Tribune): Let me just say I don't feel like I work for a company. I don't work for Tribune Company. I work for the Chicago Tribune.
FOLKENFLIK: The deal involves something called an employee stock-option plan, a complicated arrangement that would use retirement funds to help borrow the money needed to buy out shareholders. Employees could benefit if the company's revenues improve, but there's a risk. Their retirement funds could suffer, too. The company's current management will stay in place, at least for now, but Mary Schmich says there are many people in Chicago who are angry that Tribune's leadership decided to buy the Los Angeles Times and its sister papers back in 1999.
Ms. SCHMICH: I think that there are a fair number of people who feel that it reached too far, that it grasped too much and that this contributed to bringing us down.
FOLKENFLIK: Some of those papers were prestigious, but also less profitable, and the revenue suffered further as subscribers and advertisers were diverted by the Internet. Deep cuts ensued and led to a mutiny in the executive suites of the Los Angeles Times. Dan Neil is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist there.
Mr. DAN NEIL (Columnist, Los Angeles Times): There's been a lot of turmoil in the upper management of the newsroom, obviously. We've lost publishers, and we've lost some very great executive editors.
FOLKENFLIK: In fact, the past two publishers and past two executive editors at the LA Times were forced out or left after ruptures with their bosses over budgets. Neil says the hope at the LA Times is that Zell will decide to sell it off.
Mr. NEIL: And then in kind of an ironic way, we return to a previous era of publishing when we're dealing with locally owned, locally invested publishers. It sort of takes us back to the Chandler era.
FOLKENFLIK: The late Otis Chandler, of course, was the legendary publisher and donor, but it's not clear the LA Times is for sale. Two Los Angeles billionaires who say they are attracted by the public service of journalism, Ron Burkle and Eli Broad, combined to bid for Tribune, too, but they didn't promise to keep the current executive team at the helm, and their bid seemingly came up short.
Even so, it would cost Tribune just $25 million to unravel the new deal. That may give Burkle and Broad one last chance to sweeten their offer. David Folkenflik, NPR News.