While Tronc chairman Michael Ferro has enjoyed the celebrity allure of his largest paper, the Los Angeles Times, it is in Chicago where he made his name and his fortune. That's where his comfort zone, and his investors in Tronc-dominating Merrick Media, live. On Monday Tronc announced what close observers have predicted ever since he bought into Tribune Publishing (renamed Tronc last spring) in early 2016: Tronc is moving ahead to buy Wrapports Holdings, the parent company of the Chicago Sun-Times. No price for Wrapports, which also includes owner of alternative weekly The Chicago Reader and other digital assets, has been disclosed. "We'll announce the price if we close," Justin Dearborn, CEO of Tronc told me Monday afternoon.
That's a proximate "if." The sale could close within two weeks, by June 1, according to Tronc. What could hold it up? Another buyer.
Dearborn says that Tronc and Wrapports made their public announcement on Monday in order to flush any other would-be bidders out of the woods, or Chicago suburbs. That's not a courtesy; it's a reckoning that the Department of Justice's approval of the sale of Chicago's second-biggest daily to its largest daily will come more easily if it's proven that no other buyers are willing to newly invest in what has been an ever-struggling newspaper.
"We'll keep the newsroom independent," said Dearborn. That statement, too, would seem aimed at DOJ approval, which could be withheld on antitrust concerns.
Will Tronc commit to keeping the newsroom the same size as it is, I asked him. "We're talking about its independence," he told me. Of course, the Sun-Times' newsroom capacity has been steadily shrinking over the years, as the once-robust tab has bled staff, talent and experience. It's a money-losing operation, probably in the mid-to-high single digits annually, and has been for awhile, even as new owners, including Ferro in December 2011, pledged turnaround after turnaround. In truth, it's hard enough to run a sustainable monopoly daily today, and the Sun-Times has become almost a vestigial second daily financially. It does remain, though, an important voice in Chicago, and Ferro's control of it will send more chills down many a Chicago spine.