Photo by from a Bloomberg broadcast
Life under the influence of the national newspaper chain from hell just got even more uncertain for the remaining scribes at the San Diego Union-Tribune, as well as the declining readership that continues to rely on the paper for a regular dose of Chargers stadium hype, real estate development chit-chat, and miscellaneous news-wire copy.
It's become a familiar, if increasingly tiresome, routine for the U-T, as one owner after another has attempted to revive the property's flagging fortunes, each promising a new day for the once-proud flagship of the Copley media empire, famously credited with narrowly carrying California for Richard Nixon with a margin of 36,000 San Diego absentee votes in 1960's presidential race against John F. Kennedy.
Adopted Copley heir David Copley unloaded the paper in March 2009 to Tom Gores, a billionaire owner with Palestinian roots and a mansion in Beverly Hills, who sold it in 2011 to voluble Republican real estate mogul Douglas Manchester of La Jolla, who in turn passed it on last May to Tribune Publishing of Chicago.
Thus commenced the brief reign here of Austin Beutner, a former Wall Street operator and Clinton backer closely linked to Los Angeles Democratic billionaire Eli Broad, whose failed attempt last summer to buy the L.A. Times and U-T from Tribune ended in Beutner's dismissal as publisher of both.
After that debacle, rumors continued, abetted by a November tweet from Fox News mogul Rupert Murdoch, that Broad continued to have designs on the California papers, though Broad denied in December that anything was in the works.
Then came the announcement two weeks ago that Chicago wheeler-dealer Michael Ferro, like Broad a wealthy backer of the charter-school movement over the resistance of public school teachers' unions, had taken control of Tribune Publishing in a $44.4 million deal for 17 percent of the company's stock and chairmanship of the board.
Now the other shoe has fallen, with the Monday firing of Tribune Publishing CEO Jack Griffin, whose failed revival strategy for the chain involved leveraging the supposed advantages of owning a string of papers, including cost-saving "synergies" such as shuttering the U-T’s San Diego presses and moving the printing to Los Angeles.
The news of Griffin's demise arrived by way of Ken Doctor, the media blogger who predicted in October that "The odds are better than even that there will be a new bid by (Los Angeles billionaire Eli) Broad and associates for Tribune Publishing by year's end."
"This is almost Shakespearean," Doctor quoted an anonymous source as saying about Griffin's departure. "The CEO brings in a new shareholder as his 'partner' and his ally's first move is to kick him out. Act One is Romeo and Juliet and Act Two is Julius Caesar.”
Ferro replaced Griffin with Justin Dearborn, a close associate who has run previous Ferro ventures and has no newspaper or other media experience, causing some to wonder how long Tribune Publishing is destined to survive in its current form.
Ferro's holding company, Merrick Ventures, LLC, began life in March 2010 as "a group of Chicago corporate Pooh-Bahs in a secretive investment fund," according to a Crain's Chicago Business account at the time.
Boardmembers were said to include venture investor J. B. Pritzker, John Canning, chairman of private-equity firm Madison Dearborn Partners, and billionaire industrialist Lester Crown, whose family owns 10 percent of military contracting giant General Dynamics, the family's single largest asset, according to Forbes.
Noted the account: "Mr. Ferro declined an interview, and no board members returned calls for this story."
The predominance of Chicago financial insiders in the Tribune intrigue has caused some to expect Ferro may soon try to merge the Chicago Tribune with the Sun-Times, which he also has a big stake in, handing the group unprecedented influence over Chicago media.
With Griffin and his synergy strategy cast aside, some speculation goes, the company may also be open to spinning off other print properties, including the U-T and L.A. Times.
If so, Eli Broad and his self-styled public school reform agenda, supported by San Diegans including La Jolla's Buzz Woolley and Qualcomm billionaire Irwin Jacobs, may be waiting in the wings.