Who Will Buy the Los Angeles Times

Why do so many rich men want to buy it? And how did it get to this point anyway?

Thursday, Feb 28 2013

It was late 2006, and Los Angeles Times managing editor Leo Wolinsky had been summoned to the home of entertainment mogul David Geffen. A billionaire five times over, Geffen was interested in buying the newspaper Wolinsky edited. Very interested. His opening bid, as the Times itself would later report: $2 billion. Cash.

Wolinsky recalls driving past Geffen's imposing gates for what felt like a good mile, across the palatial estate once owned by Warner Bros. founder Jack Warner, through a manicured park. Geffen said he employed 13 full-time gardeners.

"Look, I could do it with 10," Geffen said. "But I want it done right."

click to flip through (2) PHOTO BY TED SOQUI - Possible Dream Team buyer Austin Beutner: "There is no voice to rival the L.A. Times."
  • Possible Dream Team buyer Austin Beutner: "There is no voice to rival the L.A. Times."

Related Stories

  • Dodger Books 3

    Don't have Time Warner Cable and can't watch the Dodgers on their new SportsNet LA channel? Pissed about the blackout - or Blue-out, as the case may be? Taking a bat to your cable box won't ease the angst for long. Instead, why don't you dive into the written word?...
  • Dodgers Celebrate Jackie Robinson Day in San Francisco, of All Places 5

    Call it the indignity of indignities, call it a cruel twist of fate from the baseball gods, or chalk it up as a minor inconvenience: The Dodgers celebrate tonight's Jackie Robinson Day in the home of the Giants, of all places. I realize that schedule making is a thankless job,...
  • The Beginning of the End for Kirk Gibson? 218

    When Vin Scully opens tonight's broadcast with the ever-melodic, "Hi, everybody, a very pleasant Friday evening to you, wherever you may be," the inevitable "it's the Dodgers and the Dbacks" follow-up indicates that what is about to unfold is just another contest. This isn't the Dodgers and the Giants we're...
  • Where to Watch the Dodgers 26

    As all fans know by now, watching the Dodgers on television this season is a disaster. Their new television channel, SportsNet L.A., can't be seen on a lot of the big cable providers, who refuse to pay for it. So fans are pretty much left stranded at third base. So...
  • Does A.J. Ellis' Knee Surgery Leave the Dodgers Screwed? 281

    Pundits from Walla Walla, Washington to Kalamazoo cautioned Dodgers fans about how injuries and a weak bench could affect the team's season, and we're about to find out whether they were right. Catcher A.J. Ellis is scheduled for surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee today, with...

The two talked about the L.A. Times. Actually, it was mostly Geffen who did the talking.

"He knew what he wanted to do," Wolinsky says. "I asked a question or two, and he launched into a two-hour — I wouldn't call it a diatribe — a monologue, about everything. He really thought he could save the paper."

Geffen never had the chance to make a formal offer. His overtures were rejected out of hand by Dennis FitzSimons, CEO of Tribune Co., the Times' corporate parent. Its board of directors thought it could do better selling the entire Tribune package: eight newspapers, more than 20 TV stations, the Chicago Cubs and a 30 percent stake in the Food Network.

Indeed they did, when investor Sam Zell borrowed $12 billion to buy it in an audacious and tragically timed leveraged buyout on the eve of the global financial collapse.

Last month, Tribune Co. and the Los Angeles Times emerged from a bitterly contested, four-year bankruptcy drama. Now there's every expectation that the L.A. Times will be sold to a new owner, possibly even before the end of spring.

The Geffen episode stands as a tantalizing what-if — what if David Geffen had bought the paper and run it like his garden? Would things be any different?

"When it became clear that [Tribune] was going to go to Zell, [Geffen] predicted the paper would be severely cut," Wolinsky says. "He said if they took the paper apart, he wouldn't be interested in it. I haven't heard from him since."

Via email, Geffen says only this: "I was interested at that time but never was allowed to look at the books or in any way investigate the LAT financial situation. I have no interest in the LAT now or since that time. I simply do not want to talk about it."

Since the sale, revenue has tanked at newspapers throughout the industrialized world, thanks to the prolonged recession and cultural shifts in news consumption.

But the Times would be put through its own private hell — Zell Hell, some would call it, although, in fairness, the budget-cutting started long before he arrived.

According to the American Society of News Editors, the number of newsroom employees in the United States has fallen 27 percent since 1989. But since its peak in 1999, with 1,300 editorial employees, the L.A. Times has lost 60 percent of its newsroom employees, currently stabilizing at just above 500.

Geffen was prophetic: A paper that he had valued at $2 billion probably is worth $200 million to $400 million today.

Yet the Times remains a relatively strong brand, the dominant daily in the second-largest city in America and the fourth highest–circulation paper in the United States. As of 2011, according to the American Society of News Editors, the L.A. Times was second only to the New York Daily News in combined print and online local readers — the close-in folks whom newspapers are trying so hard to win back.

Perhaps most surprising, bankruptcy or not, the L.A. Times on its own makes a tidy profit — $70 million in 2011, according to a former Tribune Co. employee in a position to know, as well as a wealthy businessman among the many who have tossed around the idea of buying the paper.

"It's a smaller paper, physically," these days, California historian D.J. Waldie says. "Its capacity to reach across the globe and tell the stories that need to be told has shrunk. But its presence in the lives of many local residents is strong. And its voice, though diminished, is the loudest we hear."

It's no exaggeration to say that the new owner will have an enormous influence on politics, culture and civic life in L.A.

Early this week, news broke that Tribune Co. has hired financial advisers to sell its newspapers. The question is, who will buy the Los Angeles Times, and why?

"The new mayor will probably have a bigger impact than the new owner of the Times," Waldie says. "But not much more."

For 114 years, the L.A. Times was owned by the Chandler family, a lineage so essential to the city's history that David Halberstam wrote, in The Powers That Be: "No single family dominates any major region of this country as the Chandlers have. ... They did not so much foster growth in Southern California as ... invent it. We have water because the Chandler family stole it for us; we have large horizontal sprawl and a port in San Pedro because they wanted it that way."

Related Content

Now Trending

  • Jay Z Grand Park Concert Is Official as Mayor Plans Announcement

    It looks like Mayor Eric Garcetti is going to officially announce that a two-day "Budweiser Made in America" festival is taking place  at downtown L.A.'s Grand Park. The mayor's office said today he " will make an announcement with Shawn "JAY Z" Carter, Supervisor Gloria Molina, City Council President Herb...
  • L.A.'s Top 10 Streets for Bicycle Crashes Revealed

    You're probably already aware that there's a hit-and-run epidemic in L.A., and that bicycling in a car-crazed capital like Los Angeles can be hazardous to your health. See also: Critical Mass Bike Ride Recognizes L.A. Hit-&-Run Victims But the nerds at the MIT Media Lab's Social Computing Group recently came up...
  • "Compton Division" Pimps Made Millions, Cops Say

    A trio of local pimps forced women to work the streets from San Diego to Las Vegas and beyond, cops say, and they allegedly made millions doing so. But now 31-year-old Robert Walker, 34-year-old Daniel Gunther, and 34-year-old David Sheffey, who called their crew the Compton Division, are behind bars, says...