(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Michael Ferro’s tumultuous run at the top of Tribune Publishing Co.’s shareholder register is ending in a pile of hypocrisy: with a sale to a hedge fund known for cutting newsrooms to the bone.
Alden Global, the hedge fund whose firm MNG Enterprises tried to buy Gannett Co. earlier this year, is acquiring Ferro’s 25% stake in the Chicago Tribune owner and is in discussions with the company to add two people to its board. Alden has made a business out of gobbling newspapers, ruthlessly cutting costs and gutting the staff and then, cutting even more when the product is invariably damaged, as my colleague Joe Nocera has written here, here and elsewhere. It will pay $13 a share for the privilege of getting the chance to push the same strategy at Tribune.
Ferro, who had made his millions by investing in technology companies including Click Commerce and Merge Healthcare and subsequently orchestrating their sales, built his Tribune stake starting in 2016 and ascended to the chairman post. He repeatedly rebuffed takeover bids from Gannett, owner of USA Today and other newspapers, in the early part of his tenure. He argued that he had a plan to fundamentally reinvent the news business by incorporating machine-learning video technology and “content-harvesting robots” and just needed more time to execute it. Gannett, of course, was welcome to get in ahead of time — but would have to pay up.
This meant pushing back on takeover bids that reportedly got as high as $18.75, despite the fact that Ferro himself paid only $8.50 a piece for his initial 5.2 million shares. There were also plans for more celebrity coverage, foreign bureaus in places like Lagos, Nigeria, and who could forget that regrettable name change to “Tronc” — all in the name of what one might charitably deem as an effort to be hip. It was a cockamamie strategy from the start with little chance of succeeding, but the odds were made more complicated by Tribune’s mismanagement of its business.
The idea to milk more money out of content via artificial intelligence was based in part on a technology-licensing agreement with a company backed by biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong. Ferro brought Soon-Shiong in as a white-knight investor to help fend off Gannett, then had a falling-out with him that included accusing the No. 2 shareholder of angling to buy the L.A. Times — only to one year later agree to sell him the Times for $500 million. Ferro himself stepped down as chairman of Tribune last year, mere hours before Fortune published a detailed story of sexual harassment allegations against him. After that, he appeared to want as little to do with the company as possible.
A $23 a share deal that Ferro inked for his stake last April with McCormick Media ultimately collapsed for unclear reasons. A rumored sale to private equity last August never happened, and takeover talks with McClatchy Co. also fizzled. Tribune even reportedly tried to reengage Gannett in the weeks before the Alden Global-backed MNG approached the latter this year, but too many bridges were seemingly burned in the first rendezvous. Gannett agreed to sell itself to private-equity-backed New Media Investment Group Inc. in a deal that closed this week, and the loss of that potential partner has weighed on Tribune’s shares. So instead, Ferro – the “tech entrepreneur” as so many publications have deemed him over the years – has decided to sell his stake to Alden Global, just a few short months after the hedge fund (via MNG) lambasted Gannett’s digital investments for a lack of return and called for a moratorium on new initiatives.
Tribune shareholders are thrilled at the prospect of bolstered profitability. At the very least, Alden will soon be able to do away with Ferro’s $5 million-a-year consulting fee and corporate jet benefits. It seems highly possible that Alden may try to parlay its stake into a bigger takeover; Soon-Shiong still has a nearly 25% stake, but I’d imagine he’s ready to bail on this adventure as well and focus on his purchase of the L.A. Times. I think the thing that bothers me the most is that I can’t honestly say this would have ended any differently if Ferro hadn’t come into Tribune’s life. There would have been less to write about, that’s for sure. Maybe Gannett would have even pulled off the takeover. But that may have ultimately only made for a bigger target for the Wall Street firms wielding their cost-cutting knives.
(Corrects the name of the magazine that published a detailed article about sexual harassment allegations against Michael Ferro in a column published on Nov. 20. )
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Brooke Sutherland is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals and industrial companies. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.
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