Thursday, March 12, 2020

Could we see a Lee-Tribune merger this summer?

It would make a fair amount of sense from both the vulture capital world and the clustering world.

The second first.

As I noted in my piece on Lee Enterprises acquiring Warren Buffett's papers, Lee bigly wanted the Omaha World-Herald. Already owning the Lincoln paper and several others in eastern Nebraska, plus several in Iowa, it made huge clustering sense. (That said, a lot of things make clustering sense, but newspaper companies don't always do the legwork to realize the benefits on either the news or the advertising side.)

Now, expand the picture.

Lee's flagship is the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It's headquartered in Dubuque, Iowa. It has papers in both southern and northern Illinois. And, of course, Tribune Publishing's flagship is the Chicago Trib. A merger here gives you a big clustering across northern Illinois, Iowa and northeastern Missouri.

And, it makes sense from the vulture capitalist angle, too.

As I also noted in that piece, after Lee bought BH's papers, Alden Global Capital bought 6 percent of Lee. And Joshua Benton at Nieman reports it's deepening its claws in the Trib.

It can't do more there until June 30, per a "non-aggression pact"? But afterward? Or increasing its Lee shares in the meantime?

Late last year, looking at that date, Nieman's Ken Doctor suggested the country's five largest papers chains could become two on or shortly after that date. I tweeted him that the Lee-BH combo is probably No. 6 and that the Alden moves would set up something like this.

Let's then spin this back to clustering.

The Trib owns the Baltimore Sun and the Annapolis papers. Lee got a bunch of Virginia papers with the BH acquisition, the biggest of them being Richmond. You could put those three dailies together for some Beltway commuter tabloid, el cheapo USA Today type regional tourism mags and more.

Now, would a Lee-Trib merger be touted as a move to drive off Alden, or would Alden instead, via third-party investment vehicles, be secretly ramrodding it?

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