Will the Chicago Tribune be the next Gannett paper? | Bleader

Will the Chicago Tribune be the next Gannett paper?

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Newspaper publisher Gannett said Monday that it wants to buy Tribune Publishing for more than $388 million. - AP PHOTO/KIICHIRO SATO
  • AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato
  • Newspaper publisher Gannett said Monday that it wants to buy Tribune Publishing for more than $388 million.
A few things to think about on reading that Gannett Company is making a run at Tribune Publishing, offering $12.25 a share—63 percent above last Friday's closing price.

What a terrible thing to happen to the Tribune! I head for the complimentary breakfast in chain motels with my heart in my mouth— will there be only a stack of USA Todays on the lobby counter, or will the New York Times be offered as well? Usually it's just USA Today. You might as well pick it up. You've got to do something to occupy your mind while you eat the waffle you just heated up yourself. And you don't want to be at the mercy of Fox News on the wall TV.

The Tribune isn't the Times. But if the hotel across the street gave away the Tribune along with USA Today and cost $10 more, I'd head over there. I'd figure the breakfast was better too.

At the invitation of its then CEO,  Jack Griffin, Chicago financier Michael Ferro paid more than $44 million in February to buy a controlling stake in Tribune Publishing. The idea was that Ferro's stake would give the company the wherewithal to add the bankrupt Orange County Register to the LA Times and San Diego Union-Tribune and establish an overwhelming position in southern California. Surrounding himself with his idea of an A team, Ferro almost immediately fired Griffin. Alas, the Justice Department kiboshed the sale of the Register on antitrust grounds.

But now, if the Gannett deal goes through (Tribune Publishing is thinking it over) and Ferro sells his shares for what Gannett is offering, he'll walk away with $19.5 million in profit. If he doesn't sell them, he's in bed with a business that seems to see the same future he does—a future where the smart move is to bundle newspapers bought for a song and commodify the vast stores of information they represent. 

Why wouldn't Ferro think that? Eight months ago IBM spent a billion dollars buying Merge Healthcare for its vast medical database. Ferro owned about a quarter of the company—which he'd brought back from the dead a few years earlier—and made about $170 million on the sale. There's got to be money in information: it's finite and it's actually useful.

Here's something else to think about! If the Gannett deal with Tribune Publishing goes through, Gannett estimates some $50 million a year in savings through "synergies." Synergies are usually greatest while they're hypothetical and a lot more modest once the deal is done, but such as they are, they come from maneuvers such as removing the ten-plus pages of USA Today that the Sun-Times now carries daily and stuffing them in the Tribune. I know what I just said above about USA Today, but those pages actually look pretty good in the Sun-Times, turning a product held together with hairpins into a more or less complete paper. Losing them to the Trib would be a horrendous loss for the Sun-Times and it would make the Tribune look shabbier too.

So I guess that's likely.

Finally, there's  this: if Gannett winds up with Tribune Publishing, it'll own Chicago magazine. Ferro just installed his friend Susanna Homan as editor. If he's not around any longer, will she be? 


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