A Chicago Citizen Activist's Guide to the Tribune Bankruptcy

Posted by Mitchell - December 10, 2008 (entry 617)

Last week, there were a host of articles hinting at the possibility that the Tribune company might file for bankruptcy. Yesterday, no beating around the bush: the Tribune Company -- and longtime focus of Chicago Media Action activism -- files for bankruptcy.

Back in August 2008, there appeared on the Chicago Media Action website a post about "The Last Days of the Tribune Company?". We could foresee that the Tribune was creaking under the scads of debt that was used to finance its acquisition by billionaire tyrant Sam Zell. Financial analysts going back to the summer of 2008 were saying in the business press that the Tribune was going to default on its debt by the end of 2008 -- and it appears that it has now happened. Indeed, no less a person than Roger Ebert has now cast blame on Zell and the debt as the key reason for the Tribune's bankruptcy. That and the fact that Zell doesn't know a damn thing about how to run a media company.

Now, follow me here: The Tribune debt didn't just happen. It happened because Zell used the debt to buy the company.

Why did Zell buy the company? Because a Tribune shareholder revolt in the summer of 2006 demanded a change of ownership, and the following spring they got it.

Why did Tribune shareholders revolt? Because the Tribune thought that by 2006 they would be rolling in cash for having a bunch of TV-newspaper duopolies. They banked their future on it. And for good reason: The Tribune already owned four such duopolies across America, and what, you were expecting media concentration to stop or something? Are you some kind of anti-market communist freak?

And yet, they didn't get their duopolies, because the extant FCC media ownership rules, which they (and, honestly, we) expected to get effectively smashed -- didn't. Because, plainly put, we stopped them -- by making media ownership an issue, rallying support, and that support fueled a court-ordered block of that rewrite.

And now, barely five-and-a-half years later, the Tribune filed for bankruptcy. Unbelievable.

It's even more unbelievable than that. Indeed, just one year ago at this time, the Tribune was able to flex its lobbying muscle to all but eliminate restrictions on its present duopoly holdings, supposedly to help stave off bankruptcy. Meanwhile, it appears that there's a scandal involving Sam Zell and donations to Senator Dick Durbin and incoming-White-House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel to exert pressure on the FCC for changing those restrictions. It should be a humongous scandal, but chances are that you first heard about this as you read these words.

There's are two points -- myths, really -- pertaining to the Tribune's bankruptcy that also merit mention.

Myth one: It's all the internet's fault. All those people are using the internet and Craigslist and that's ruining newspapers. True, the internet has taken a bite out of newspaper profits, but still, newspapers are (or at least, up until this summer, were) pretty darn profitable, as the ANA has long said. Indeed, just last week word leaked that Gannett newspapers scored double-digit profit margins for newspapers that are now laying off staff by the truckload.

Myth two: The Tribune can just go into bankruptcy, and emerge out better than ever. Maybe. But maybe not. The Tribune had a $70 million dollar debt to pay, and even though it had the financing lined up, instead opted to file for bankruptcy. This could prove trouble, considering the murderers' row of financial companies who are the Tribune's largest creditors. Plus, the Tribune has effectively abandoned pay to its employees. And you thought that a shareholder revolt was scary? Let me introduce you to some friends at Republic Windows and Doors.

UPDATE: BusinessWeek confirms that employees will bear the exclusive brunt of Tribune's possible fall. Zell himself probably won't be affected.

UPDATE 2: America's finest news source enters the fray.

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