Explaining Southern California's economy

Peter Liguori becomes new Tribune CEO, calls the company a startup

2010 Winter TCA Tour - Day 6

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Meet the new CEO of Tribune Co., owner — and possible soon a seller — of the L.A. Times.

Tribune Co. emerged from bankruptcy last year owned by a bank, JP Morgan, and private equity investors from Los Angeles-based Oaktree Capital Management. Now it's going to be run by an executive whose most recent job was at the giant private equity firm the Carlyle Group. Peter Liguori landed there for a stint after serving as the Chief Operating Officer at Discovery Communications.

Last year, the bankers and private-equity guys who now control the company started to talking to yet more bankers about possibly selling Tribune Co.'s newspapers, which include the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, as well as local TV station KTLA.

In an interview with the L.A. Times published Thursday, Liguori said that he's isn't interested in selling, say...the L.A. Times for a "fire sale" price. And then he said some other things:

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If Eli Broad wants the L.A. Times, he'll need to go through Aurelius' Mark Brodsky

Kevork Djansezian/AP

The Los Angeles Times building. L.A. billionaire Eli Broad is once against interested in buying the struggling newspaper.

Yep, it could be Broad versus Brodsky for the future of the L.A. Times, which is currently embroiled in the never-ending Tribune Co. bankruptcy. The L.A. billionaire philanthropist against the bankruptcy lawyer turned hedge-fund CEO. 

Brodsky's Aurelius Capital Management, based in New York, is fighting hard for its piece of Tribune's liabilities, basically forcing the company's senior creditors, including Oaktree Capital Management, to delay their hopes that they could get the viable parts of the media giant out of Chapter 11, leaving the junior creditors to tussle over the scraps. But Brodsky doesn't play that game, and he's no stranger to pressing his case and pressing it hard.

This can create some controversy. During the bankruptcy of what was left of Washington Mutual after the FDIC sold its banking business to JP Morgan Chase in 2008, Aurelius was accused by a single shareholder of insider trading because the hedge fund, along with three others, wouldn't back a reorganization plan. However, the bankruptcy judge eventually decided to "vacate" a ruling that would have enabled the shareholders to sue the hedge funds, effectively erasing the accusation from the legal record.

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Is the LA Times becoming Gawker Media?

LATimes-Gawker Media

The Los Angeles Times just went through another round of layoffs, while its parent, Tribune Co., is nearing an exit from a bankruptcy proceeding that began in 2008 and shows few signs of being pleasantly resolved. The Times itself, however, is becoming a legitimate online powerhouse. But it’s beginning to look less and less like a newspaper.

The paper itself conveniently reports its own traffic numbers, focusing on its blogs. And the numbers are impressive. In July, the top 3 blogs racked up 36 million in page views. Let’s just jump back to that for a second. Blogs. Racked up. 36 million in page views. 

Justin Ellis at the Nieman Journaism Lab is impressed:

[T]he Times’ traffic gains have also come off the work of its blogs, including Politics Now, Hero Complex (on “movies, comics, fanboy fare”), and a Technology blog. Orr attributes that to the high posting frequency from the blogs’ writers, as well as their writing style. It’s writing that has voice and knowledge, but is also reported out, Orr said. So when you read an item on Politics Now about the Iowa straw poll, say, or an item about Pixar on Hero Complex, those posts are actually more akin to article-length stories.

Hero Complex is indeed a fanboy's paradise. Gawer Media started a very similar effort in 2008, called io9, that roams the territory of capes, wands, and lightsabers. But Hero Complex aims for a more middle-ground, less geek-a-delic readership.

If you check out the Pixar post that Ellis highlights, it quickly becomes apparent that it isn’t very bloggy at all. But then again, this is something of a trend in the blogosphere. Old-school journalism and the fast-and-loose world of what we might now be able to call old-school blogging are beginning to converge. And both are changing in the face of the rapidly shifting economics of the media business.

Traffic is the coin of the realm in this space. And high-quality traffic -- the kind of thing that Google likes, and likes even more since it revised its Panda search algorithm -- is what the Times high-quality blogging is bringing in.

In fact, the Times’ blogs are beginning to look a lot like what Gawker Media -- the once-upstart New York-based enterprise that publishes the eponymous gossip site, as well as technology blog Gizmodo, sports blog Deadspin, and even porn blog Fleshbot (sorry, that link is NSFW) -- wanted to be in the aftermath of its controversial redesign earlier this year. (Reuters blogger and Gawkerologist Felix Salmon unpacks the whole thing here.)

Weirdly, it’s like the L.A. Times and Gawker are ships passing in the night: one a leviathan ocean liner trying to become a frigate; the other a fast-attack sub that’s turning into dreadnought. You could even say that the Times is ahead of the game here: its blogs feature exactly the kind of rich, reported content that Gawker head Nick Denton insists he wants -- as opposed to the snarky, quick-hit blogging that has made the Gawker sites successful and addictive in the early years of Web 2.0.

Viewed this way, the Times’ blog network, Southern California born and bred, looks like the most innovative media business in country -- better than the New York Times, which despite the popularity of satellites such as DealBook is still tied to the staid mothership; and better than the Huffington Post, which has become something of a hot mess since its merger with AOL.

Is this a model that newspapers everywhere should emulate? Well, maybe. The Times’ blogs have earned their traffic through original writing and reporting, less from the dreaded aggregation, whereby blogs summarize or deconstruct and re-assemble the content of others in a more search-friendly context. 

But the Times’ blogs are also highly dependent on what Jeff Jarvis has called “Google juice.” The Times’ online managing editor, Jimmy Orr, reported that Google traffic for LATimes.com was up “65.4% year over year.” Sounds great. Until whatever search-engine optimization strategy that yielded it gets gamed by lesser operations and compels Google to again adjust its algorithm. 

Of couse, one lesson that the Times’ can learn from Gawker is to avoid messing with a good thing. After Gawker Media unveiled its redesign, its traffic plummeted by 25 percent. That was the sound of a blogging network becoming less bloggy -- but also of money leaving the bank.

Photo: Minaert/Wikimedia Commons

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