Judge Rules That Hearst/MediaNews Documents on California Deal Remain Sealed

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A media advocacy group and an alternative weekly newspaper on Wednesday failed to persuade a judge to open key documents in a deal between the San Francisco Chronicle and the owner of about a dozen Bay Area daily newspapers.

U.S. District Judge Susan Illston denied requests from the Oakland-based Media Alliance and the San Francisco Bay Guardian, which asked in December to make public court records in a lawsuit that challenges a business partnership between Denver-based MediaNews Group Inc. and Hearst Corp., the Chronicle’s publisher.

The dispute centers on 19 records that Hearst and MediaNews filed in July under seal on grounds that they contained business information they consider confidential.

“The bulk of the records contain detailed financial information, including past and present revenues, and projections of future revenues,” Illston wrote in a decision leaving those records largely under seal. Portions of two documents that don’t contain such sensitive information will be unsealed, Illston ruled.

In their Dec. 21 motion, Media Alliance and the Bay Guardian argued that the public’s First Amendment right of access to the court filings outweighed any interest in keeping them confidential.

The antitrust lawsuit challenges New York-based Hearst’s investment of $300 million in a complex deal that gives Denver-based MediaNews three more Bay-area newspapers on top of the seven it already owns. Hearst’s investment helped finance MediaNews’ purchase of the Contra Costa Times, San Jose Mercury News and Monterey County Herald earlier this year.

The papers are direct competitors to the Chronicle.

San Francisco businessman Clint Reilly filed the federal lawsuit to block the deal, claiming it would limit competition for readers and advertising in the Bay-area newspaper market.

The newspaper companies maintain the arrangement is not anticompetitive because readers and advertisers have other media venues such as the Internet.

The judge barred Bay Area newspapers owned by MediaNews and Hearst from consolidating some of their business operations until the lawsuit is resolved. The case is expected to go to trial next spring.

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