April 27, 2016

Michael Ferro, the primary shareholder of Tribune Publishing, on Tuesday told the Tribune-owned Los Angeles Times that Gannett is “trying to steal the company” with its $815 million bid for the publisher of the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and nine other major daily newspapers.

But Gannett CEO Robert Dickey says his company’s offer is a generous one that values Tribune Publishing at a 63 percent premium over Friday’s closing share price. And he’s eager to start negotiations in earnest.

“Our goal is really simple,” Dickey said in an interview Tuesday afternoon. “We need to have the opportunity to sit down with Tribune’s board and have a meaningful dialogue. Between the two companies, I believe that we can cooperate and come to an agreement.”

In Dickey’s interview with Poynter, conducted before the Los Angeles Times published its fiery interview with Ferro, the Gannett CEO struck a conciliatory note, expressing admiration for Tribune Publishing’s newspapers and underscoring the importance of quality journalism.

Absent from the conversation were any traces of the pointed rhetoric that surfaced between Ferro and Dickey in an earlier exchange in which the two honchos accused each other of mischaracterizing the runup to negotiations over email.

“It’s not lost on us that the L.A. Times just won a Pulitzer,” Dickey said. “There’s a long history of terrific journalism. We share that value. The new Gannett is incredibly committed to continuing to build upon our ability to give our readers the best possible journalism in their local markets.”

But how would the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, the major newspapers of the American West and Midwest, fit into Gannett’s portfolio of mostly local titles? Dickey pushed back against the characterization that the two newspapers would seem out of place in the company’s holdings, pointing to titles like USA TODAY, the Detroit Free Press and the Arizona Republic as evidence that Gannett has the ambition and experience to produce national and international news.

He described a scenario in which Tribune titles like the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and The Baltimore Sun would be regional anchors for the company’s newspapers throughout the United States, producing journalism and helping with investigations undertaken by smaller nearby papers. It’s a plan Gannett has already put into place with its USA TODAY Network, in which big stories that germinate at the local level are told using Gannett’s combined resources at the state and national level.

“By bringing the L.A. Times and Chicago Tribune and The Baltimore Sun, it will ultimately make our network even stronger,” Dickey said. “The benefit to them: They would be part of a network that has well over over 100 million monthly uniques.”

Since Gannett went public with its offer, there’s been no shortage of hand-wringing from journalists at major Tribune titles wondering how Gannett’s reputation for cost-cutting and financial efficiency will play out at their newspapers should the deal go through. These fears may have been exacerbated by a statement Monday from Dickey which noted an acquisition of the company would result in $50 million in “synergies.”

When asked Tuesday whether Gannett would cut newsroom jobs where there might be editorial redundancies between Tribune and Gannett — both companies maintain Washington bureaus, for example — he said he hadn’t formulated a plan that included editorial layoffs.

“I don’t have any plans.” Dickey said. “And until we sit down and have a meaningful dialogue with the Tribune Board, it’s hard to answer.”

He added that much of the $50 million in savings would come from “corporate overhead,” costs associated with maintaining a public company. He also cited some work at printing facilities and throughout Tribune’s distribution networks that would be duplicative under Gannett. He added that protecting the quality of the journalism under Tribune Publishing titles was paramount, noting that “there is no reason that I can think of that I would willingly reduce the resources that go toward what is our core mission, which is journalism.”

In cases where newsroom redundancy exists, such as Tribune’s Washington bureau, Gannett Chief Content Officer Joanne Lipman might use the extra editorial muscle to fill in coverage gaps, Dickey said.

“I would suspect that where we had duplicated efforts in Washington or anywhere that Joanne and the team would say, ‘Where are our gaps? How do we move some of these resources where we’re duplicated to go and fill the gaps where we’d like to do more coverage?'” Dickey said. “The reality is, for Gannett, Tribune, The New York Times, any of us in this business over the last six or seven years, we’ve had to face challenges of a changing business model. And I’m committed to preserving the resources that help our journalists provide our readers with the best possible journalism we can produce.”

When asked if the negotiations had a deadline — such as Tribune Publishing’s June 2 annual meeting — Dickey said he has no plans to rescind his offer. He wouldn’t speculate on Gannett’s possible countermoves if Ferro made another offer to shareholders or put the company up for auction. And he waved away antitrust concerns, noting that his team is prepared to provide “whatever information is requested” to the Department of Justice if necessary.

Gannett, he said, did not take going public with its offer for Tribune Publishing lightly.

“We are very, very aware of the options that are available to us,” he said.

Editor’s note: Poynter receives funding through a training partnership with Gannett. The company has no influence over our news content.

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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