An octogenarian Swiss billionaire who makes his home in Wyoming and has donated hundreds of millions to environmental causes is a surprise new player in the bidding for Tribune Publishing, the leading newspaper chain that until recently seemed destined to end up in the hands of a New Yorker. hedge fund.
Hansjörg Wyss (pronounced Hans-yorg Vees), former CEO of medical device maker Synthes, said in an interview Friday that he had agreed to join Maryland hotelier Stewart W. Bainum Jr. in an offering for Tribune Publishing. an offer that could change Alden Global Capital’s plan to take full ownership of the company.
Wyss, who has given away some of his fortune to help preserve wildlife habitats in Wyoming, Montana and Maine, said he was motivated to join the Tribune offering by his belief in the need for a strong press. “I have the opportunity to do 500 times what I am doing now,” he said.
Alden, who already owns about 32 percent of Tribune Publishing shares, is known for dramatically reducing the costs of newspapers that it controls through its subsidiary MediaNews Group. Last month, the hedge fund struck a deal with the Tribune, whose newspapers include The Daily News, The Baltimore Sun and The Chicago Tribune, to buy the rest of the company’s stock at $ 17.25 each.
Under that plan, Mr. Bainum, a longtime Marylander, agreed to establish a nonprofit group that would buy The Sun and two other Maryland newspapers owned by the Alden Tribune for $ 65 million. However, shortly after that agreement was reached, negotiations between Mr. Bainum and Alden stalled. That prompted Bainum, president of Choice Hotels International, one of the world’s largest hotel chains, to make an offer on March 16 for the entire Tribune, topping Alden’s number with an offer of $ 18.50 per share.
That offer valued the company at about $ 650 million. The Alden settlement valued the Tribune at approximately $ 630 million.
Tribune was not swayed by Bainum’s offer. A securities filing on Tuesday revealed that the company’s board of directors recommended that shareholders approve Alden’s offer. At the same time, the Tribune board gave Mr. Bainum the go-ahead to seek funding for his highest bid.
He has done so by partnering with Wyss, who said in the interview that he planned to own the company’s flagship newspaper while he and Bainum seek benefactors for the other seven Tribune subway dailies, which include The Orlando Sentinel and The Hartford Courant. .
“He made that offer because he wants The Baltimore Sun,” Wyss said, referring to Bainum. “I said, ‘Yeah, it’s okay. And I have to make The Tribune even better than it is now. ‘
The agreement reached by Wyss and Bainum is not binding, Wyss said. He added that he joined in recent days and is detailed in a letter he sent to Mr. Bainum on Friday. A person with knowledge of the discussions between Mr. Wyss and Mr. Bainum confirmed that each man planned to contribute $ 100 million towards the $ 650 million offering, and Mr. Wyss said he would be willing to provide additional funds for financing Of the debt.
Bainum declined to comment. A spokesperson for three Tribune board members unaffiliated with Alden declined to comment. An Alden spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A decade ago, Wyss led the sale of Synthes to Johnson & Johnson for approximately $ 20 billion. Mr. Wyss and his family, a daughter, Amy, who also lives in Wyoming, had the largest stake in Synthes, owning nearly half of the shares.
The sale of Tribune, which the newspaper company expects to conclude in July, requires regulatory approval and votes in favor of the company’s shareholders who represent two-thirds of the non-Alden shares. Medical entrepreneur Patrick Soon-Shiong, who owns the Los Angeles Times with his wife, Michele B. Chan, has enough Tribune stock to crush the Alden deal on his own. Dr. Soon-Shiong declined to comment on Saturday.
Wyss said he would be a civic trustee for The Chicago Tribune. “I don’t want another newspaper that has a chance to increase the amount of truth that the American people are told to go down the drain,” he said.
The possible acquisition of Tribune by Alden has been fiercely opposed by many journalists in the Tribune newspapers. Alden has slashed costs at many MediaNews Group publications, including The Denver Post and The San Jose Mercury News. Critics say the hedge fund sacrifices journalistic quality for higher profits, while Alden argues it saves papers that would otherwise join the thousands that have closed in the past two decades.
Wyss, 85, said he was partly inspired to join Bainum by a New York Times opinion essay last year in which two Chicago Tribune reporters, David Jackson and Gary Marx, warned that an Alden purchase it would lead to “a ghost version”. from The Chicago Tribune, a newspaper that can no longer fulfill its essential surveillance mission. ”Since that article appeared, both reporters have left the newspaper.
Berne-born Mr. Wyss first visited the United States as an exchange student in 1958, working for the Colorado Department of Highways. He was a journalist when he was young, he said, covering skiing for Neue Zürcher Zeitung, a The Zurich newspaper and the presentation dispatches on American sports to Der Bund, a Berne newspaper, when I was studying at Harvard Business School.
He said he believed The Chicago Tribune would prosper under his ownership.
“Maybe I’m naive,” Wyss said, “but the combination of giving enough money to a professional staff to do the right things and putting enough money into digital will eventually make it a very profitable newspaper.”