Journalists pray for miracle to stave off Tribune takeover by Alden

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Now that talks have broken off between Tribune Publishing and hotel magnate Stewart Bainum, the newspaper company’s journalists are hoping for a miracle to derail a $634 million bid by cost-cutting hedge fund Alden that will give it control of the New York Daily News, the Hartford Courant, the Chicago Tribune and other Tribune papers.

“Everybody is nervous,” said Liz Bowie, a 30 year veteran of the Baltimore Sun and a rep for the Newspaper Guild union at her paper.

For the past six months, Bowie has been talking with Guild representatives at other Tribune papers papers also represented by the union. They have formed a group they call Project Mayhem in an effort to help come up with the money Bainum needs to beat Alden, including by networking with deep-pocketed people who might be interested in teaming up on a bid.

They’ve been doing this in part by holding events to raise awareness, which they hope will lead to new investors. Three weeks ago, for example, Bowie spearheaded a “Save Our Sun” rally.

Bainum buying Tribune versus Alden, Bowie lamented, is “the difference between winning the lottery and ending my career in journalism.”

Alden Global Capitol’s $634 million offer is the only offer left on the table ahead of a May 21 shareholders to vote on the $17.25-a-share offer. A competing $681 million bid by Bainum evaporated when his investment partner, Swiss billionaire Hansjorg Wyss, bowed out after initially offering $18.50 a share for the company.

Bainum, according to sources, is scrambling to find new deep-pocketed buyers to join him in a long-shot effort to restart his bid.

“It’s not implausible,” said Ted Venetoulis, a former Baltimore County executive who has been helping Bainum, the chairman of Choice Hotels International, try to assemble a bid. “If he comes up with the additional financing, the Tribune board will have to consider it,” he said.

“He’s working hard on it,” said Venetoulis.

But the clock is ticking.

And journalists across Tribune are fretting over an Alden takeover given the deep cuts it has made at other papers it controls, including the Denver Post, the Boston Herald and the San Jose Mercury News.

“A lot of local people when they hear what is happening are angry,” said Wendy Fox Weber, a rep for the Chicago community papers who also coined the term Project Mayhem. “Now civic-minded rich people have to come forward and support Bainum,” she said.

But it’s getting increasingly tougher as even local investors interested in buying up specific Tribune papers express doubt about Bainum’s chances.

“If Bainum wins it, I’ll support him, but I won’t do anything to jeopardize my chances,” said one investor scouting one of Tribune’s local papers. Another suitor in a different local market said the plan remains to negotiate a deal with whoever ends up being the winning bidder for the whole company.

The South Florida Sun Sentinel is one of the few papers under the Tribune umbrella not represented by the News Guild. Mason Slaine, a minority shareholder in Tribune has said he wants to buy the Sun Sentinel and the Orlando Sentinel and is reportedly willing to pledge $100 million to support Bainum, who is also pledging $100 million.

Reached Thursday by Media Ink, Slaine said, “I can’t comment.” He then hung up the phone.

The National Labor Relations board is supervising a unionization vote at the Daily News, which wraps up on April 30. An overwhelming majority of its nearly 70-member newsroom turned in cards requesting representation by the Guild, but the company refused to grant voluntary recognition and insisted the NLRB supervise a mail in vote.

The Daily News is not considered officially unionized until a vote is certified so has so far been unable to join with other Guild members in scouring for local white knights to keep the struggling paper from the clutches of Alden.

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