Alternative bidders emerge for newspaper chain Tribune

A group of alternative bidders is emerging for newspaper chain Tribune Publishing, which had agreed to a $630 million acquisition by hedge fund Alden Global Capital.

Over the weekend, The New York Times reported that a billionaire who lives in Wyoming, Hansjörg Wyss, was joining a bid for Tribune with Maryland hotel mogul Stewart Bainum. The Times reported that both would commit up to $100 million to the $650 million bid. The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that Mason Slaine, a Tribune investor who has previously said he wanted to buy the Tribune’s Florida papers, is also willing to commit $100 million in financing. In an email, Slaine confirmed his interest in joining the bid and owning the papers but said it depended on “diligence and terms.”

The Tribune board has endorsed Alden’s offer, but allowed Bainum to pursue financing for his bid.

Alden, which owns one of the country’s largest newspaper chains including the Boston Herald, the Denver Post and the San Jose Mercury News, became Tribune Publishing’s largest shareholder in 2019 and now holds a 32% stake.

Tribune journalists have decried the Alden deal. The hedge fund is known for slashing costs and shrinking newsrooms at the newspapers it acquires in order to squeeze out profits, notable moves even in an industry characterized by cost cuts and layoffs. The unions at Tribune papers have pushed for alternative buyers for the company’s papers.

Bainum, the chairman of Choice Hotels International, initially had a nonbinding agreement to form a non-profit to buy Baltimore Sun Media for $65 million as part of Alden’s deal for Tribune. But negotiations over the terms faltered and he made his own offer for the whole company.

He would reportedly keep the Sun as part of the group bid, with Wyss interested in the Chicago Tribune and Slaine in the Orlando Sentinel and the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale.

Tribune and Alden did not reply to questions. A spokesman for the special committee of Tribune’s board that recommended the Alden bid declined to comment. Messages left for Wyss through his foundation and Bainum through his hotel company were not returned.

A representative for Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Times and a major Tribune investor whose blessing is needed for the deal, did not answer questions.

Slaine is the former president and CEO of business information company Thomson Financial, now Thomson Reuters, and former head of financial data provider Interactive Data Corp. Bainum is chairman of Choice Hotels, a former Democratic politician in Maryland and a philanthropist. Wyss, originally from Switzerland, founded a medical device company bought by Johnson & Johnson and has a philanthropic foundation that supports environmental conservation.

“I am a Florida resident and I believe heartily in strong investigative journalism as a necessary part of creating a safe and honest society,” Slaine emailed Monday to Orlando Sentinel reporters and Guild members who had contacted him about buying the paper, according to a letter from the Sentinel Guild.

Gregory Pratt, a Chicago Tribune reporter and the head of the paper’s guild, said they are “heartened” by Wyss’ interest. “All Tribune Publishing newspapers need civic minded owners and we are encouraged to see people stepping up, from Chicago and Baltimore to Orlando,“ he wrote. “Alden Global Capital represents the worst in our industry: Greed at the expense of the public good.”

Rick Edmonds, media business analyst for the Poynter Institute, said that it would be great for local journalism if bidders could come together, but challenging to put that together quickly.

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