The battle for Orange County Register parent Freedom Communications Inc. has ended, with a bankruptcy court judge Monday approving the company’s sale to Digital First Media.
Tribune Publishing Co., owner of the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times among other publications, initially emerged the victor in a bankruptcy auction last week for Freedom with the winning $56 million cash bid. Meanwhile, Digital First came in second as the backup bidder with a $51.8 million offer.
However, the auction’s outcome was met just hours later by antitrust concerns raised by the U.S. Department of Justice, which sought to block the potential deal. The Justice Department argued such a sale, if approved, would create a Southern California monopoly in which assistant attorney general Bill Baer said “newspaper competition will be eliminated and readers and advertisers in Orange and Riverside counties will suffer.”
Freedom, aside from its Orange County Register daily newspaper, also has a hold in the Inland Empire, where it owns the Press-Enterprise.
Digital First, on its Web site, said its portfolio totals more than 800 brands across print, Web, mobile and tablet. It owns a number of local dailies in northern and central California operating under the MediaNews Group banner.
A spokesperson for Tribune sent the following statement: “Tribune Publishing is disappointed in the U.S. Department of Justice’s intervention in the company’s $56 million bid for Freedom Communications Inc. We respectfully reiterate that the government’s position on this matter does not recognize the current state of the media landscape. Internet-based aggregators take journalism content from leading news brands — like the Orange County Register — and profit at the expense of the content creators.
“We will continue advocating for the future of journalism and content creators, and we hope by engaging in that conversation, regulators will change their position. In the meantime, Tribune Publishing remains focused on its strong portfolio of news brands, led by the Los Angeles Times. We are actively engaged in growing the L.A. Times brand and building a global audience. Development of the L.A. Times and California-based acquisitions, such as LA.com, are critical to our strategy to drive revenue for Tribune Publishing and demonstrate the value of journalism.”
The sale caps what’s been a tumultuous few years for Freedom.
The company filed for bankruptcy in November after a number of turns that saw Freedom sold to a group of investors led by Aaron Kushner in 2012, followed by hefty investments into print and the launch of publications under the new ownership group. But the party didn’t last long. The Los Angeles Register, meant to be a rival to the Los Angeles Times, was shuttered after less than a year in operation and the flagship Orange County Register property saw numerous layoffs and buyout deals for its editorial ranks.