Norfolk's Virginian-Pilot sold to Tronc for $34 million

Another independent paper, the 153-year-old Virginian-Pilot, has been sold as its owners say they cannot manage digital transition and the financial challenges of declining advertising without the scale of a large chain.

The buyer, for $34 million, is Tronc, whose holdings include the Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun and the nearby Daily Press of Newport News. The change in ownership, announced this morning, is effective immediately.

The seller, Landmark Media Enterprises, once a substantial regional newspaper and broadcast group, sold its TV stations and other dailies and had been reduced to one newspaper in its headquarters town. In essence, it was a locally-owned property, a private company controlled by the Batten family.

The transaction makes sense for both parties.

Tronc is flush with cash as it closes a $500 million deal to sell the Los Angeles Times to billionaire Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong.

This year chains such as Gannett have typically been shopping for digital marketing or tech companies rather than more newspapers. But this match looks to be too good for Tronc to pass up.

The $34 million is a modest price, especially since it includes a headquarters property in Norfolk and a printing press. 

Tronc will have the option of merging or at least coordinating the Pilot's operations with those of the Daily Press as it now has both major newspaper outlets and their digital sites in the Hampton Roads metro. (I have asked for comment from Tronc executives on how it will manage the two and will add any comment if they respond).

This year Tronc has built out a centralized print page production operation in Chicago for all its papers and, for the last several months, has been implementing a digital-first news emphasis at each paper. Both initiatives will be a fit for the Pilot after a transitional period integrating its operations into the chain.

On Landmark's side, the deal provides another instance of a mid-sized paper that is at an extreme disadvantage trying to operate independently.

In a press release announcing the sale, Landmark's general counsel, Rusty Fridell said,

"In order to most effectively continue its important work, The Virginian-Pilot must have the benefit of the resources of a large organization. Tronc brings the scale and commitment to best serve our important mission."

Landmark's three largest papers were put up for sale a decade ago, but the company did not find a buyer. Subsequently, it sold off the Greensboro News and Record and The Roanoke Times, both to Warren Buffet's BH Media, leaving just The Virginian-Pilot and small dailies in Florida and Kentucky.

The company also once owned The Weather Channel, which it sold for $3.5 billion to NBC Universal in 2008.

The Pilot has long had a strong reputation for editorial excellence, winning three Pulitzer Prizes, and named a finalist in 2018 for investigative reporting on Virginia's draconian parole system.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, editor Sandra Mims Rowe (and later at The Oregonian) hired and trained many young female editors including Amanda Bennett and Julia Wallace who went on to top editor jobs at papers around the country.

The changes were announced to staff of The Pilot at a morning meeting. Typically there are newsroom job cuts after a chain takes over, but those were not specified.

The Pilot had outsourced page production in January, cutting back its local staff of copy editors, in an effort to save money.

Publisher Pat Richardson, a longtime Landmark business executive, departed in April to become publisher of The Day in New London, Connecticut.

The Virginian-Pilot is Virginia's largest paper with Sunday circulation of 132,000. The sale leaves Tronc and BH media, which also owns the Richmond Times-Dispatch, as the two big local news players in the state.

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