Not everyone was disappointed by news that Tribune might break itself in pieces.The Chicago-based publisher, under pressure from restive shareholders, has been trying to sell itself wholesale. But the company said last week that bids were too low, according to media reports -- raising the prospect that Tribune will end up selling off its choice assets one by one. The news sent Tribune shares down late last week, but local businessmen who are eyeing their hometown papers took heart. And though a series of local sales could be messier than a plain vanilla corporate takeover or private equity buyout, it's possible the Tribune sales process could play out in a way that makes both investors and local communities happy. "This is a positive step for folks like us," says Ted Venetoulis, a former Baltimore County Executive who's leading a group of Maryland investors that has expressed interest in buying the Baltimore Sun. Tribune, Venetoulis said, "called to acknowledge that they're well aware of our interests. They're still sorting things out, and they haven't made any judgments yet, but this is a positive sign." A possible sale of Tribune assets has attracted other investors who say they're interested in shepherding local papers through a difficult transition for the industry. Consumers are shifting to Internet sources for their information needs. The swirling rumors haven't crushed Tribune shares -- they're up 7.7% this year, even as operating performance continues to deteriorate -- but they have Wall Street very keen to see a resolution. Tribune spokesman Gary Weitman declined to comment for this story.
"It makes more sense for local, private owners, or groups of owners, to have these assets than it does for a public corporation," says Maureen Croteau, professor of journalism at the University of Connecticut. "You've got an industry that's really stressed out, and there's going to be a few more transitional years before things get figured out. Investors in the public markets don't have the patience to keep investing the amounts of money it takes to keep these brands intact and get them over the hump." Analysts point to the Boston Globe, owned by the New York Times ( NYT - Get Report), as an example. The paper has been gutted by staff reductions as circulation and ad revenue fall. The New York Times said recently it's not interested in selling The Globe, but noises from local investors led by former GE ( GE) CEO Jack Welch has led to speculation that the Gray Lady will reconsider. Elsewhere, steep cutbacks led to a brief newsroom rebellion at Tribune's Los Angeles Times. Tribune recently fired the paper's publisher for refusing to fire more workers. The newspaper's editor, Dean Baquet, remains onboard despite his own public protests against the cuts. Music mogul David Geffen and supermarket tycoon Ron Burkle have reportedly expressed interest in a deal. Other local business interests in L.A. have voiced concern about Tribune's personnel cuts in the newspaper's editorial staff.
In Connecticut, employees and a union that represents hourly employees in the newsroom of Stamford's The Advocate and Greenwich Time, both of which are run by Tribune subsidiary Southern Connecticut Newspapers, recently sent a letter to the corporate parent expressing a desire to buy the papers. The group asked the Tribune to delay any decision regarding those assets while they explore financing possibilities. "We want to partner with private capital for an employee-friendly buyout that would be an alternative to chain ownership," says Doug Dalena, staff writer with The Advocate and the unit chairman for the United Auto Workers chapter that represents some of the paper's staff. "We're talking with some private consultants and looking at the possibilities." Local buyers have also expressed interest in the Hartford Courant and Newsday on New York's suburban Long Island. This spring's sale of another struggling newspaper chain, Knight-Ridder to McClatchy ( MNI - Get Report), showed one way a deal could unfold. Private equity buyers and USA Today publisher Gannett ( GCI - Get Report) have been rumored to have interest in Tribune, though it's unclear which buyers hold the most promise for Tribune shareholders. Adding to the intrigue, McClatchy turned around and sold 12 Knight-Ridder papers after its purchase, some to local business interests. So there could be multiple rounds of sales before the dust settles at Tribune's properties. Venetoulis wouldn't say how he goes about estimating the value of the Baltimore Sun, but he stressed that his group of investors represent serious, local business interests with a long-term perspective that would put no limits on the paper's editorial freedom "We haven't seen all the numbers yet," he says. The Sun, he added, is "a local institution, and if it is sold, there ought to be local people who consider buying it. We're doing this partly out of a sense of civic duty, but we also think it would make a great investment."