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Lunchtime Briefing: Why the Tribune Sale Affects You

Frank Ahrens

Tribune Co., one of the nation's oldest and largest newspaper companies is up for sale.

Why should you care?

Unless you're a sports-style fan of business -- who's up, who's down, which deal is happening, who's the big player -- you have little reason to care. Switch the name "Tribune" with "Rite Aid" or "Burger King" and it's probably all the same to you, which is understandable.

But here's the story behind the story: The outcome of this sale could radically change the journalism landscape, and that does affect your daily life.

Tribune owns a number of large newspapers, such as the L.A. Times, the Baltimore Sun and Newsday. It owns even more television stations, also in large cites, as well as superstation WGN, and even the Chicago Cubs.

By this time next year, the company likely will either be in someone else's hands or split up into many pieces. Newspapers have long been publicly owned, subject to the demands of shareholders and Wall Street. But spiraling circulation has caused Wall Street to sour on newspapers, so the papers are seeking different ownership, typically private.

New owners want return on their investment and one way to do that is to cut costs. For newspapers, this means cutting staff and reducing coverage or combining resources.

Part of this is good for newspapers: For years, as newspapers enjoyed a monopoly market on local advertising, times were fat and staffing was dictated solely by desired coverage needs:

Editor: "We need three more reporters in our suburban bureau."
Publisher: "You got 'em! Lunch?"
Editor: "Sure! I'll expense it!"
Publisher: "Hahahaha!"

Now, newspapers have to play by the same rules as all businesses. Some right-sizing is in order.

But deeper cuts, if they come, will reduce the amount of journalism newspapers can produce and you can read. Already, we in the industry get complaints from (former) readers who say they don't read papers anymore because they're filled with wire stories and warmed-over news they've seen elsewhere. More cuts will provide more of this kind of coverage, driving away more readers.

Take a look at the Philadelphia Inquirer, once one of the nation's largest, proudest newspapers. Cast off by former owner Knight Ridder earlier this year, the Inky was bought by a local owner who said he would try to limit staff cuts and was committed to the local news.

But once he got a look at the Inky's books (gulp!) he realized he would have to make deep cuts. Then, he realized he would have to make even more cuts.

In Today's Post:

-- Brian Krebs writes about the FBI's attempt to crack down on ID theft. Also, check out Brian's Live Online reader discussion today.

-- Metro's got a new technology that will send real-time train-arrival information to your computer and mobile devices. Our Metro section's Lena Sun reports.


-- Apple has hopped on Bono's (RED) charity wagon. (RED) employs a novel idea as a fundraiser for the Global Fund to fight AIDS in Africa, co-founded by the U2 frontman. Instead of just asking for donations, (RED) works with the free market. It signs up companies to designate certain of their products as (RED). The companies then donate a percentage of the purchase price of those products to the (RED) charity. Apple adds a red nano iPod; $10 of the purchase price of each $199 or $249 (RED) nano goes to the charity.

By Frank Ahrens  |  November 3, 2006; 10:53 AM ET  | Category:  Frank Ahrens
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