Rising Talk Of A Sale Of The L.A. Times
The dispute between the Chandler family members of the Tribune board and the board majority represented by Dennis FitzSimons, the Tribune CEO, is the continuing subject of widespread media coverage, including articles in the L.A. Times and New York Times just today.
Perhaps the most significant paragraph in either article was the one in Joe Menn's piece in the L.A. Times reporting that one of the perspective buyers of the Times, Los Angeles developer Eli Broad, had approached Chandler family negotiator Tom Unterman "and was told that nothing would happen before this fall. That is when the second and larger of two investment partnerships that hold the Chandlers' stake in Tribune can be dissolved without a tax penalty."
Fall is not that far off, and the implication of Unterman's remark is that something may happen then. Unterman was instrumental in the sale of Times-Mirror to the Tribune Co. in 2000 when he was Times-Mirror's chief financial officer.
Menn quotes the Chicago-lining publisher of the L.A. Times, Jeff Johnson, as saying the L.A. Times is not for sale. However, that really has all the value of Pierre Laval of Vichy France saying the D-Day landings in Normandy would not be successful. Laval was eventually hung for treason against France on behalf of Nazi Germany, and Johnson would not last in his job a week, if the Times were sold. Unlike John Puerner, the first Tribune publisher sent to Los Angeles, he does not appear to have been acting so much in the interests of the Times while he's been here, as he has been interested in doing just what Chicago and FitzSimons told him to do. Publishers' statements in all the former Times-Mirror newspapers show signs of being coordinated out of Chicago. They are suspiciously alike.
The Menn article names three men who would like to buy the Times. They are billionaire investor Ron Burkle, U.S. Olympic Committee chairman Peter Ueberroth and Broad, who may be allied with entertainment mogul David Geffen. Geffen made an offer to buy the Times earlier, but was rebuffed by FitzSimons.
Ueberroth, who has headed both the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee for the 1984 Games, and Rebuild L.A., after the 1992 riots, is quoted by Menn this morning as saying in an interview, "The L.A. Times is a world class brand...We're always attracted to quality brands."
Burkle, in a written statement provided to Menn, said his Yucaipa investment company, "has been interested in exploring the opportunity to purchase newspapers for some time. The chance for the L.A. Times to be locally owned again is an opportunity that should not be missed."
It's also reported by Menn this morning that while the Chandler family members constitute only 25% of the Tribune board, there also is a separate board for the L.A. Times formed at the time of the Times-Mirror sale to the Tribune upon which they constitute 40% of the membership, and thus would have a veto power over any sale of the Times if they chose to exercise it.
The exact attitudes of the Chandler family representatives on the main Tribune board are not known. However, Jeffrey Chandler, one of them, is described by former Times executives as not particularly bright or well attuned to the newspaper business. On the other hand, Unterman, who is representing him and the others in present negotiations, is well attuned to the business.
Since Otis Chandler was eased out as publisher of the Times by more conservative members of the Chandler family, the Chandler interests seem to have been chiefly interested in their stock values in Times-Mirror and later the Tribune Co. However, FitzSimons has been making such a mess of things lately that a sale of the L.A. Times might be viewed by them as financially advantageous.
It is always possible too, as I've speculated before, that the Chandler family representatives have some feeling of loyalty to California, in which case they may resent the way FitzSimons and his cronies have treated the Times as a poor stepchild in the Tribune Co.
In what seemed to be a plant by Tribune Co. executives, an article last week in the Chicago Tribune said FitzSimons was determined to hang in there and maintain his position.
The New York Times article this morning is an examination of what is called the "starkly different views" of the Chandler family and the heirs of the old McCormick ownership of the Chicago Tribune, as to the future of the company.
What is to be made of all this? I think that it is that the Tribune Co. is "in play," as Wall Street likes to say, and major developments probably lie ahead.
A restoration of the L.A. Times to home ownership would be a boon to California as a whole and, naturally, to the beleaguered Times staff.