Why No Local Bids for the ‘Trib’?

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

We Chicagoans carry on our Big Shoulders a huge chip of sentimentality. Though we’re often careless about preserving the actual buildings that we celebrate in our architectural history, Chicagoans rush to the barricades at the first sign of any change that threatens landmarks of another sort, those existential touchpoints of our civic self-image.

Last year around this time, for instance, Chicagoans rent their garments in grief when the owners announced the closing of Berghoff’s, a charming German restaurant that was holder of the first Chicago liquor license issued after the repeal of Prohibition.

We’re doing it again now. Months after Marshall Field’s department stores became just another bunch of Macy’s, we act as if the holiday season itself is now utterly despoiled. Sure, the Christmas tree towers in the Walnut Room and the elves frolic in the windows along State Street, but somehow everything is ruined because the sign says “Macy’s.”

Yet the Chicago Tribune of Col. McCormick and Mike Royko is up for sale — and the city’s reaction is a collective shrug of those Big Shoulders.

Now, when that happened in Philadelphia, locals tripped over each other to get in their bids for the Inquirer and Daily News. In L.A., the would-be moguls didn’t even wait for Tribune Co. to hint at a sale of the troubled Los Angeles Times. Bold-faced names like David Geffen and Friend of Bill billionaire Ron Burkle have agitated for the paper for months. In Baltimore, Tribune for years has had a standing offer for The Sun from a local foundation.

This yen for local ownership of the hometown paper is exploding across the country. Every hometown, it seems, but mine.

Chicago teems with the HNWIs (high net worth individuals) who could easily swing a deal for the paper, from the billionaires you probably know, like the Pritzkers of Hyatt Hotel fame, to the ones you don’t, like the guy loudly telling dirty jokes at the next table at Ceres, the raucous bar under the trading floor at the Chicago Board of Trade. Mayor For Life Richard M. Daley has had no problem rounding up a small army of HNWIs to work on bringing the Olympics to town in 2016.

None of these people have stepped up for the Trib. I’m writing this two weeks after Tribune despaired of getting a sweet, tax-advantaged offer for the entirety of the media giant — and allowed that, well, maybe they’d see what they could get for individual parts. Neither announcement stirred any sense of urgency remotely like the panic among Chicago movers and shakers two decades ago when they learned Rupert Murdoch was bidding for the Sun-Times.

I’m not looking for a commission on the sale, but it’s clear the Trib is an attractive property that’s captured a commanding share of the Chicago advertising pie with a formidable array of print equipment and a first-class direct marketing operation. Merrill Lynch figures the paper will end the year with an operating margin of 26.5%.

A guy I respect who’s no longer in the newspaper business did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation for me the other day that showed a local buyer willing to accept a margin of just 5% less could swing the likely $2 billion-plus deal, handle the debt payments, hand a good annual return to investors, and still throw out a nice chunk of change to get about the urgent business of reinventing newspaper Web operations — where, incidentally, the Trib enjoys a head start over many of its peers.

Gannett Co. executives have been around to the Tribune Tower to kick the tires — but no locals.

Even Oprah, for crying out loud, is passing on the opportunity to rename the World’s Greatest Newspaper “O: The Daily.” Her people told two Crain’s Chicago Business reporters that O was a no-go. (Steadman, how ’bout you?)

So why is no one stepping forward?

It could be that our locals see up close that there are fewer entrepreneurial opportunities because the Tribune, especially with such niche audience-pleasing spinoffs as the jokey RedEye and the suitably earnest Hoy, has not been screwed up nearly as much as, say, the Los Angeles Times.

It’s true, too, that buying a newspaper after becoming rich in some other business appeals to a certain ego-indulging type of tycoon. Perhaps, someone suggested to me, they’re waiting to buy a cheaper bully pulpit when the Sun-Times comes on the market, as it someday will.

Let’s remember that Chicago ain’t Hollywood, where preening dealmakers often speak loudly about what they can’t really deliver. There’s a lot more Midwestern reserve in our business DNA. So it’s entirely possible that there are one or two HNWIs slipping a discreet word of their interest to friends on the Tribune board.

I sure hope so. Because the only other explanation — that the fate of Chicago’s most historic daily no longer stirs the passions of civic leaders committed to moving this great city forward — is just too dispiriting to contemplate.

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