Updated below with Tribune clarifying it's not really an auction, reactions from top Los Angeles Times journalists and potential buyer Austin Beutner. Additional reporting by Hillel Aron. Headline has changed.
CNBC is reporting that Tribune Co. has hired investment bankers to sell off its newspaper unit, which includes The Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune. The rumor has been that handsome jet-setter Bruce Karsh, the new chairman of the Tribune board of directors (by dint of the fact that Karsh's Oaktree Capital was owed a huge chunk by Tribune), would be a leading voice in selling off the newspapers, while keeping 23 lucrative TV stations and a big chunk of The Food Network.
In a situation similar to the sale of The Dodgers, Evercore and J.P. Morgan will auction the newspapers, according to CNBC. Tribune brass declined to comment -- but there can be no doubt that the 500 Los Angeles Times newsroom and editorial employees will watch this drama closer than the season closer of NCIS:
There have been a flurry of sales of newspapers to people who profess to love the struggling print media, including the purchase of the Palisidian Post, that tiny newsy paper in upscale Palisades, as well as the purchase of the Orange County Register by a greeting card magnate who is pouring money into the product and paying veteran reporters decent wages of $70,000 and up.
Who will bid on the Los Angeles Times if it is attached in this sales deal to more than a half-dozen other papers that don't have the gravitas of the big Los Angeles daily?
Remember how many surprise candidates stepped forward to buy The Dodgers, with a far-off financial firm coming up with the cash to front the Dream Team that now owns the club?
Drama to come. Stay tuned.
Update: Austin Beutner, the multi-millionaire ex-Los Angeles Deputy Mayor under Antonio Villaraigosa, whose secret investor group wants to buy the L.A. Times, reacted by denying that his deep ties to Evercore give him a leg up in this auction.
"Evercore are professional people, and they're gonna do right by their clients," Beutner says.
Still, it must be great to be Beutner: In 1996 he co-founded Evercore Partners as an investment banking advisory firm with Roger Altman. Now that same firm, sans Beutner, will decide if Beutner's bunch of buyers should get the paper.
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Well-known Times journos also played down the long-awaited news. Matt Lait, courts and police editor, said, "It's not really a surprise. There's been talk about it for a long time. From where I'm coming from, I'm optimistic about the future. I assume the next buyer will see our potential for what we do."
"This is a company that's been in bankruptcy," said Lait. "That's not a great thing either. We all expect change is gonna come."
James Rainey, a Times political reporter, adds, "I thought we were already for sale. ... I'm not surprised. I think it's kind of what people expected."
Update: Tribune sources clarified on Tuesday that they are not holding an auction. They are hiring the two firms to advise them on which of the suitors who have approached them are able to pay the price Tribune sets.