It’s been a tumultuous few years for the Los Angeles Times.
First, the newspaper went through the Tribune Co.’s bankruptcy reorganization. Then a number of billionaires talked about buying it.
Now, the paper is starting a new chapter as it spins off as part of a new public company.
The Times’ parent company, Tribune of Chicago, was set to separate its newspapers into a publicly traded unit called Tribune Publishing Co. on Aug. 4. Shares of the company are expected to begin regular trading on the New York Stock Exchange the next day.
The deal breaks off Tribune’s faster-growing TV business from the newspaper division, which has struggled as print advertising dollars have shrunk.
“Tribune plans to restrict the negative spillover effects of the publishing segment in the more profitable media business,” analysts at Spin-Off Research of Chicago wrote in a recent research note.
What does that mean for the future of the newspaper? Possibilities include another sale, more layoffs and increased focus on the Internet – or a combination of the three.
The publishing division consists of eight daily newspapers including the Times, Chicago Tribune and Baltimore Sun as well as other smaller weeklies. The Times is the largest by circulation. The group is worth about $635 million, according to a recent report by Lance Vitanza, an analyst at CRT Capital Group in Stamford, Conn.
That’s a small piece of the value of Tribune Co. as a whole, which was worth $7.9 billion last week. Much of the company is owned by investment firms including Oaktree Capital Management, but it trades on the over-the-counter market. The company will be renamed Tribune Media Co. after the split. Tribune Media’s holdings will include 42 local TV stations including KTLA-TV (Channel 5) as well as cable channel WGN America and various properties, including the Times’ headquarters in downtown Los Angeles.
Separating TV and print assets has become a trend. Last year, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. publishing company, which owns the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers, was spun off as a separate company from 21st Century Fox, which owns the Fox movie studio. Also this year, Time Warner spun off its Time Inc. magazine business, including Sports Illustrated. Last week, media firms E.W. Scripps and Journal Communications said they will merge and keep their broadcasting operations but spin off their newspapers, which include the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Ventura County Star.
Tribune Publishing faces a number of challenges. Chief among them: Tribune’s publishing revenue fell 6 percent last year to $1.9 billion, while revenue fell industrywide only about 3 percent.
The publishing division was still profitable, however, thanks to cost-cutting. More recently, the company has also been increasing its digital efforts, as shown by a recent Times website redesign. The idea is to attract more ad dollars online, and there are signs that it’s working. Tribune Publishing Chief Executive Jack Griffin said in a recent media interview that the Times has seen double-digit revenue increases since introducing the redesign in May.
The spinoff marks the first time Tribune shares will trade on a major exchange since 2007, when real estate mogul Sam Zell led the purchase of the company in a leveraged buyout that saddled Tribune with $13 billion in debt, leading to a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing the next year as the economy cratered. The company emerged from bankruptcy in 2012.
Now, there’s an expectation that the Times might change hands yet again. News Corp. was recently rumored to be interested in the Times, or Tribune as a whole, but Murdoch tweeted he could not buy either due to Federal Communications Commission cross-ownership rules.
Other interested parties during last year’s sale exploration included local billionaire Eli Broad in partnership with former Deputy Mayor Austin Beutner. The Business Journal did not hear back from either of them after requests for comment through their representatives.
But analysts at Spin-Off think the new public company could attract a bigger newspaper company’s interest.
“We believe the new company would be a strong takeover candidate for some bigger publishing house,” the analysts said in a note.
Or maybe buying?
Another possibility: Griffin of Tribune Publishing has said that the company is in the market to buy more newspapers near markets where the company already has a presence. That means it could consider buying the Los Angeles News Group, which includes the Daily News and the Long Beach Press-Telegram, and has been reportedly preparing for a sale under parent company Digital First Media.
Ken Doctor, a San Francisco Bay Area news industry analyst, said that it would be natural for Tribune Publishing to look at the Lang papers.
“Given the financial straits of Digital First Media, it makes sense to see what properties are available and at what price,” Doctor said. “I’m sure they’ll kick the tires.”
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