Digital Press for Sale
Digital First Media, having emerged victorious in a contentious bankruptcy auction, on Monday won court approval to buy The Orange County Register and The Press-Enterprise.
“It was a very difficult birth, but the baby is fine, ” Freedom’s bankruptcy attorney Bill Lobel told the judge.
Digital First, which owns the Long Beach Press-Telegram, Los Angeles Daily News and other Southern California newspapers, won after the auction’s top bid by Tribune Publishing, owner of the Los Angeles Times, ran into antitrust problems.
The deal is expected to close by March 31 when Freedom’s bankruptcy financing ends. Digital First’s Los Angeles News Group will now be known as the Southern California News Group, with regional publisher Ron Hasse at the helm.
“We are honored to uphold the values of local journalism, and we look forward to working with award-winning news teams who have dedicated their careers to informing the public about the issues that matter most, ” Hasse said in a statement. “We are also excited about providing advertisers a broader platform from which to deliver their messages.”
Just two days before Wednesday’s auction, the U.S. Justice Department’s antitrust regulators warned Freedom’s bankruptcy attorneys that they would fight if Chicago-based Tribune won the bidding. That helped create the dispute-filled atmosphere for a marathon auction that included Tribune, Digital First and a local investor group led by Freedom CEO Rich Mirman and Orange County developer Mike Harrah.
Numerous legal questions were debated through the auction day, delaying bidding for roughly 10 hours. When it was all done, all three bidders had beefs about the process. Five rounds of bidding ended just after 10 p.m. Wednesday, with Tribune’s $56 million offer on top. Digital First became the backup bid.
Birotte also noted that local newspapers, unlike news-aggregation websites, “continue to serve a unique function in the marketplace: They are the creators of local content.”
The Justice Department on Monday praised Digital First’s selection. The deal “will ensure that citizens and advertisers in Southern California continue to benefit from competition and from a diversity of views in their local news coverage, ” said Bill Baer, assistant attorney general of the antitrust division.
Tribune didn’t give up easily. The company’s lawyers spent recent days trying to buy time for an antitrust fight. But attorney Lobel said that Tribune could not give Freedom enough financial security about the impact on creditor collections of a protracted legal battle.
Tribune attorney Jeremy Rosenthal told the court on Monday that Tribune was very disappointed it was blocked from buying Freedom’s papers due to the government’s “antiquated and unrealistic” antitrust views.
Digital First, Tribune and other newspaper publishers face a shrinking market for readers and advertisers. The alternatives, online and mobile markets, are ruthlessly competitive.
Amassing large portfolios of newspapers, then cutting expenses and spreading remaining editorial, production, overhead and supply costs across more publications, is a popular tactic to combat shrinking newspaper and ad sales.
Denver-based Digital First - controlled by Alden Global Capital, a private investment fund known for betting on distressed newspapers - publishes nine Southern California papers including Whittier Daily News, Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Torrance Daily Breeze, San Bernardino Sun, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin and Redlands Daily Facts. Its flagship papers are The Denver Post and San Jose Mercury News.
The future is digital news, as the name “Digital First” implies. Adding Freedom’s papers will give Digital First a combined online reach of its Southern California papers of 6.3 million unique visitors and 22 million page views monthly.
Jeffrey Brody, a former Register reporter who’s now a journalism professor at Cal State Fullerton, worries how many more cuts will have to be made to keep local newspapers profitable as more young people turn away from printed news. Newspapers are being hurt by new technologies much like the businesses of records stores, music stores and video stores.
“You won’t see journalism disappearing, but the future for one way it’s delivered – newspapers – it doesn’t looking good, ” Brody said.
Hasse expressed optimism about the Freedom purchase, “We are dedicated to bringing stability and a renewed sense of purpose to these two great newspapers. It is a privilege we take seriously and I am personally looking forward to getting to work.”