Word is Platinum Equity has been doing some serious tire kicking at the bankrupt Sun-Times Media Group, which is not only ready but eager to deal. Platinum Equity is a Beverly Hills-based private-equity company that, in its own words, finds itself "typically working with 'strategic sellers' that seek to shed a non-core asset in order to refocus their business operations." The STMG is willing to shed everything -- in one swoop or in bits and pieces.
This March Platinum Equity bought the formerly prosperous, influential San Diego Union-Tribune -- for what online newspaper analyst Ken Doctor said was reportedly a "song" -- and brought in Canadian publisher David Black (no relation to Conrad) as strategic adviser. Two years earlier Black had bought the Akron Beacon-Journal, and Doctor looked to Akron for clues as to what Black intended for San Diego. Doctor said the Union-Tribune's staff and readers should find no encouragement in the Beacon-Journal example. "Mainly, the Beacon-Journal, like most of its brethren, has gotten smaller. At least three rounds of layoffs have reduced the staff by more than a third." Moreover, "the Beacon-Journal has not distinguished itself in pushing its newsroom to embrace web-first, web-only, blog-friendly reporting. The online sales side is a work in progress."
So from Platinum Equity and Black, Doctor predicted this for San Diego: "Less headcount and a concentration on lower-paid, less-experienced reporting staff. Morale—never a newspaper strong suit—will take another hit." Furthermore -- "The Union-Tribune will get smaller and much more locally focused."
Is it possible for anyone to move the Sun-Times and the other STMG titles even further in that direction?
In fact, Jeremy Halbreich, the interim CEO of the STMG, thinks it is. "Any newspaper can always be more locally focused," he told me Friday. "There's always room for improvement."
Doctor believed the real attraction in San Diego was the paper's real estate holdings. He observed, "Commercial real estate has seized up in the recession and the credit crunch. But that’s cyclical. It will come back—and far faster than metro-newspaper values." There's now a Trump Tower on what was once the STMG's choicest piece of property, but many of the group's other titles are located on STMG-owned real estate.
Halbreich wouldn't comment on Platinum Equity's interest in his business, but he said, "I guarantee you, [Platinum Equity] did not buy San Diego because of the real estate." Halbreich said the old days of 30 percent profit margins are over, but he thinks that as normal businesses, making a 5 percent, sometimes 10 percent annual profit, newspapers have a future.
As for the notorious executive bonuses he's asked bankruptcy court for permission to pay his top people when the STMG assets are sold, Halbreich repeated what he said in a staff memo -- that they're necessary. But he wants no one to think that in a time of crisis senior management is getting a cushy deal. "When we have asked our employees, union and nonunion, to sacrifice, the only way I'll do it as CEO is to have senior management lead the process," Halbreich said. He estimated that in the last six months total executive compensation at the STMG has been cut by 30 to 35 percent -- primarily by eliminating jobs and making survivors double up.