A three-ring circus over the fate of the Chicago Sun-Times will apparently climax in the next 24 hours, with the Justice Department in the improbable role of lion tamer.
In the main ring is found what amounts to an aerial act.
There, a surprise late-minute bidder improbably favored by the government is engaging in a tricky balancing act to find both enough money and a business plan to get the formal government go-ahead to buy the paper.
In a second adjacent ring is the early favorite, the frustrated owner of the rival and more financially secure Chicago Tribune. Close by are the owners of the Sun-Times. Their collective primary actions appear to be shaking their heads in the direction of the third ring.
There one finds what amounts to the lion tamer, the Justice Department. Even with a new administration, its antitrust division reflects an Obama-era suspicion of newspaper mergers that, some argue, flies in the face of an industry decline and unceasing disappearance of local ad revenues as those gravitate to Facebook and Google.
But the third ring could provide the real drama if the Justice Department's preference is not heeded by the Sun-Times board at a scheduled Tuesday meeting and thus inspires what could be legal fireworks.
In sum, the owners of the Sun-Times had announced a deal with Tronc, owner of the Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and other papers. It offered the inherent logic of the Sun-Times and Tribune already having business dealings, most notably via a $25 million a year accord by which the larger Tribune prints and distributes the Sun-Times (and is said to earn a roughly $8 million annual operating profit).
That deal, depending on your vantage point, is very advantageous for the Tribune or an albatross for the Sun-Times -- or both. Regardless, it's already brought a melding of interests and resources that would not be assured long-term for a new owner.
The Justice Department doesn't like the notion of a Tribune-Sun-Times combine, believing it would drastically diminish competition though the Sun-Times would continue to operate independently.
That explains why it forced the Sun-Times to run a full-page ad essentially opening up the bidding process, even after a list of de facto usual newspaper industry suspects had examined a potential Sun-Times bid and walked away.
That led to Edwin Eisendrath, a former Chicago politician and a liberal Democrat, to surface and form an alliance with Chicago unions and announce its interest.
It would pay $1 for the paper but, said the Justice Department, would have to raise just over $11 million, in part to be able to handle predicted losses over the next three years. And it would need a coherent business plan.
The seemingly key deadline is late Monday afternoon. It appeared that the union group was still scurrying for money and to formalize a business plan, according to a source involved in the talks.
If it asks for a further delay, what happens?
The Sun-Times board is prepared to set its own hard and fast five-day deadline for pledges to be fulfilled by the union group. Otherwise, it would contend that its only alternative is selling, as it desires, to Tronc.
In turn, that would raise the theoretical prospect of the Justice Department going to court to seek a restraining order to stop a sale to Tronc. That would present a fish-or-cut-bait moment for the Sun-Times board since it would have to decide whether it wanted to spend ample sums in legal fees battling the government.
And even if a deal with Eisendrath and the unions comes to be, there will be fundamental questions about their ability to run and sustain the editorially vibrant, if financially pressed tabloid.
That $11 million or so would seem to be inadequate to bolster the paper's business and editorial operations, especially in hiring A-list talent to revive the paper against great odds.
Then there's its technological infrastructure. Lost in stories about the resurgence of the likes of The Washington Post and The New York Times is the huge amounts they are investing in technology, be it dramatically improved load times or a variety of other digital improvements.
As for its strategic plan, that is also unclear beyond generalizations about making the paper more "worker-friendly" and somehow sparking the interest of union households in the Chicago area.
Could a new ownership group get those households to spend $50 or $100 a year on digital subscriptions? So far Tronc has fallen woefully short of selling such subscriptions, even at relatively nominal prices.
In delving into a business that confounds far more experienced media hands nationwide, how would Eisendrath and the unions produce a product that was essential daily reading that consumers would pay for?
And where might other needed revenue streams come from to bolster a newsroom that long ago dipped below 100 as it tries to cover a major metropolitan area?
It might be folly to think one could reverse the local advertising tide to Amazon and Facebook, or that one could somehow now be a magnet for national advertisers (as The Post and Times seek to be with their broad and sophisticated content).
The answers are very unclear. But one should know shortly who'll have to answer them in taking over the Sun-Times.