In Los Angeles, the best game in town may involve the streaking L.A. Dodgers, but it might not have to do with the baseball team’s on-the-field play.
Dodgers controlling owner Mark Walter is reportedly exploring a bid for the beleaguered newspaper, which is about to be cut loose by parent Tribune Corporation. His interest comes just days after the ultra-conservative billionaire Koch brothers indicated that they considered Tribune newspapers a hopeless business investment and were no longer contemplating buying the Times or a package of Tribune-owned publications.
Tribune made no secret of its desire to shed its print operations—including the Times, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel, Hartford Courant and The Morning Call—after emerging from bankruptcy in December 2012, and refashion itself as a broadcast-oriented company with an internet presence.
After making initial noises about entertaining bids for one or more of the newspapers, Tribune announced in July that it preferred to simply spin off the newspapers as a separate publishing unit and be done with it. In the process, CEO Peter Liguori said that the Tribune broadcast entity would retain the corporation’s substantial real estate holdings and two of its big online money-makers, Classified Ventures and CareerBuilder.
That may have taken the wind out of the Koch brothers’ sails. Tribune is still burdened with potential tax liabilities left over from the innovative financing schemes used by previous owner Sam Zell when he purchased Tribune in 2007. But the Kochs also may have been responding to the collective howl of anguish at the prospect of them steering the newspaper even further right than it has already drifted.
At the time, home-grown conservatives like Orange County Register owner Aaron Kushner and U-T San Diego owner/real estate developer Doug Manchester suddenly started looking better—the way a manslaughter plea outshines a murder one conviction. New L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti suggested that the Huffington Post buy the newspaper and every billionaire who had ever graced the city was mooned over in the press.
A number of other billionaires, including Eli Broad, David Geffen, Rupert Murdoch and Warren Buffett, have been mentioned as potential suitors at one time or another. On Monday, John Henry, owner of the Boston Red Sox and recent purchaser of the Boston Globe, was seen touring the Times building.
Walter has a net worth of $1.5 billion and is co-founder of Guggenheim Partners, LLC, a global financial services company. He and five other men paid $2.15 billion for the Dodgers in 2011, which seemed like overkill—until the group inked an $8.5 billion deal with TimeWarner to televise the team’s games.
Last week, he told the Times, “The Los Angeles Times says something. It means something. It’s a brand.”
And it’s a marketing device, a commercial enterprise that was once a cash cow, and a shiny new object to show your friends.
And, oh, ya, it’s also a public trust playing an essential watchdog role, critical to the functioning of democracy.
It could be six months or longer before Tribune decides which, if any, suitors are worthy of owning the Los Angeles Times. May the best man win.