Newspaper Bankruptcy Watch: The San Diego Union-Tribune

A lot’s been said about last week’s buyout of The San Diego Union-Tribune by Platinum Equity, a private equity firm, which disclosed only the barest details about the sale.

The sale isn’t about newspapers. Rather, it’s about land.

Platinum Equity is not in the newspaper business; it’s in the distressed assets business. From an accounting perspective, land is the only asset that never loses value. The Union-Tribune owns 13 prime acres in Mission Valley that’s sandwiched between the Town & Country Resort and the ritzy Fashion Valley Mall. The company also has half an acre in La Jolla.

If reports that the newspaper company sold for less than $50 million are correct, Platinum Equity is getting the company land at a tremendous discount in a depressed market. All it has to do is hang on for a few years until the market recovers and then it has prime property for an apartment tower, corporate offices, hotel or mall expansion.

What to do with the newspaper then?  Few people paid much attention to the last sentence in the press release announcing the sale:

Platinum Equity was advised by Hughes Hubbard & Reed and Alvarez & Marsal’s Transaction Advisory Group.

Alvarez & Marsal is overseeing the dismantling of Lehman Brothers. The bankrupt Tribune Company also hired Alvarez & Marsal to craft a restructuring plan.

Last year, Fortune magazine described Alvarez & Marsal as a firm that profits from corporate misery:

Alvarez & Marsal do the mopping up when a company has run out of options and can’t meet its loan obligations. With some clients, A&M dispatches teams to work much like consultants – looking over the books and talking ideas – but about a hundred times faster. In thornier cases the firm does the dirty work itself, usually with Tony Alvarez, Bryan Marsal, or another partner stepping in as CRO – chief restructuring officer – and doing triage like ordering layoffs, selling off assets, and making overhead cuts.

It seems then that Platinum Equity is going to make the kind of moves that the Union-Tribune’s family owners never could. Sadly, that is going to mean the end of San Diego’s biggest newspaper.

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