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New private-equity player shows interest in Tribune newspapers 

Lee Mitchell

Lee Mitchell

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Updated: April 15, 2013 11:17AM

The list of potential buyers for Tribune Co. newspapers is growing, with a Chicago-based private equity investor saying Wednesday that he wants to see the company’s books.

His name is Lee Mitchell, and while he’s not as well known as Rupert Murdoch, the conservative Koch brothers or others in the Tribune mix, his background could make him a contender.

Mitchell, managing partner at investment firm Thoma Bravo LLC, is a former president of Field Enterprises Inc., a past owner of the Chicago Sun-Times. He was with Field in 1984 when its boss, Marshall Field V, sold the Sun-Times to Murdoch.

“We would like to know more about it,” Mitchell said of the sale of Tribune-owned newspapers. He said traditional media continue to be a troubled business, but prices of the assets have fallen and a new crop of buyers has emerged interested in the digital potential of newspapers.

“It’s more than newspapers, really. They are looking at multimedia delivery mechanisms,” Mitchell said. “You have to have that concept in mind.”

He discussed his interest a day after reports surfaced that industrialists Charles and David Koch are angling to buy all Tribune newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. The holdings also include six other major dailies.

The Reuters news agency reported the Koches’ interest Tuesday, citing sources familiar with the situation. The brothers lead Koch Industries Inc., one of the largest private companies in the United States.

Koch Industries reports annual revenues of $115 billion and interests in oil refining, pipelines, chemicals and paper products. The brothers promote their free-market views and have been aggressive lobbyists against legislation they feel would affect their companies.

They use their corporate website to challenge media portrayals of their views or operations. But on the topic of Tribune newspapers, the company issued a “no comment” with an elaboration.

In a statement to Reuters, Koch spokeswoman Melissa Cohlmia said, “As an entrepreneurial company with 60,000 employees around the world, we are constantly exploring profitable opportunities in many industrial sectors.

“So it is natural that our name would come up in connection with this rumor. We respect the independence of the journalistic institutions referenced in today’s stories, but it is our longstanding policy not to comment on deals or rumors of deals we may or may not be exploring.”

A Tribune spokesman also declined to comment, citing company policy on discussing speculation.

Tribune has retained the investment banks JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Evercore Partners Inc. to field offers for the newspapers. A financial adviser’s estimate last year when the company was in bankruptcy put the papers’ worth at $623 million, but bidding could send their prices much higher.

Mitchell said he expects Tribune properties will attract substantial interest. The Koches could want the papers as an ideological platform, and Mitchell wryly noted that such a buyer would be in keeping with Chicago Tribune history.

Col. Robert McCormick ran the Tribune for years, using it to campaign against the New Deal, communism and American involvement in overseas wars.

Mitchell’s Thoma Bravo firm is among the larger private equity shops in Chicago, investing mostly in software, financial and business services, and education. The firm reports $4 billion in current equity investments. It does not have holdings in media.

Executives behind Wrapports LLC, the owner of the Sun-Times, also have said they are interested in acquiring the Chicago Tribune and related assets, such as its printing plant. The Tribune prints the Sun-Times in a $70 million-a-year contract.

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