Speculation that Alden Global Capital boss Heath Freeman is gearing up for a takeover of Tribune Publishing intensified on Monday when the controversial hedge fund — known as a destroyer of local newspapers — said it upped its ownership stake in Tribune to 32 percent.
“Nobody expects them to be passive investors,” said one shareholder of Alden’s plans for Tribune, which owns the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun and the struggling New York Daily News.
Fueling fears that Alden wants to take over Tribune was the way the hedge fund classified the SEC filing revealing its news stake. Instead of revealing the 32 percent stake in a so-called 13-F filing, it filed what’s known as a 13-D, which investors file when they own more than a 5 percent stake AND they want to exert influence over management.
“Alden has a reputation of aggressively slashing staff … selling off real estate and otherwise attempting to seemingly run papers until the very last iota of cash is gone,” said Doug Arthur at Huber Research. “Media sources refer to the strategy as strip mining,” he said.
When Alden first announced last week that it had acquired former Tribune chairman Michael Ferro’s shares for 25.2 percent of the common stock — making Alden the largest shareholder — the filing was a 13-F. That classification indicated a big, but passive, investment.
If Freeman’s Alden ultimately gains majority control of Tribune, he could try to engineer a major newspaper rollup by getting debt-free Tribune to take over his debt-heavy MNG Enterprises, which operates as Digital First Media and owns papers including the Denver Post and the Boston Herald, both of which have been battered by deep cuts.
All eyes are now on LA Times-owner Patrick Soon-Shiong, the health-care billionaire who is the second biggest shareholder in Tribune with a 24 percent share.
Soon-Shiong was a white knight for Tribune by blocking Gannett when it tried to make a hostile takeover. But he had a stormy falling out with then-chairman Ferro and ended up buying the LA Times from Tribune for $500 million in June 2018.
And Alden’s been paying $13 a share to amass its 11.5 million shares, according to its SEC filing. That’s a pretty premium to where they were trading just last month at around $8 and change.
Soon-Shiong did not return a call seeking comment.
One source said Soon-Shiong’s shares were purchased at around the $13-a-share level. But he is also subject to a standstill agreement preventing him from buying — or selling — stock without board approval, a well-connected source said.
And there is also some debate as to how interested he would be to sell to Alden, one of his biggest rivals in the California newspaper market. Digital First Media has more than 30 daily papers in the state, including the Orange County Register, the Los Angeles Daily News, the San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, the Long Beach Press-Telegram and the Santa Cruz Sentinel, among others.
Tribune stock after jumping to $13 a share last week on the news of Alden’s first big buy, gave back some gains Tuesday, closing at $12.56, down 3.4 percent.