As The Courier-Journal’s owner advances on a takeover of the Los Angeles Times and more than 160 other titles, it has promised it won’t take a top-down approach to managing news at the company’s existing chain of more than 100 papers.
A big test of that pledge comes with one of Gannett Co.’s newest editors, Chris Davis, hired for a new position leading the company’s chain-wide investigative reporting. He joined the company in July from the Tampa Bay Times, where he edited two Pulitzer Prize-winning projects.
In a new interview, Davis talked to industry trade site Columbia Journalism Review about what he sees in the future for the CJ and Gannett’s other dailies. Here’s an excerpt:
What do you think this new position says about Gannett’s journalistic ambitions now and in the future, especially as the company continues to refine its strategy?
To me, it’s a clear signal that the editors here are putting journalism first, particularly investigative journalism. They could have hired all sorts of people, but they wanted someone who could come in and really drive the most important kind of journalism, which is watchdog and investigative work. I think it shows a clear commitment, and it was one of the reasons I was intrigued at the outset. They want someone who is exclusively focused on investigative work to be in a top-level position. I think that says a lot.
In business journalism, some of the most interesting news shows up in fine-print footnotes in documents companies file with government agencies. Hospital and nursing giant Kindred Healthcare is great example. Last spring in a statement to stockholders, it disclosed two special payments to top executives: $6 million to then-executive vice chairman Paul Diaz in connection with his leaving the CEO’s job, and $250,000 to Chief Financial Officer Steven Farber, to help him escape a high-profile dispute with a Glenview neighbor. But to uncover that, you had to follow three different footnotes on a table showing how much they got paid overall.
This leads me to another footnote, of sorts — one that appeared on a story today at Insider Louisville, the online news site launched in 2010, and to a document I’ve run across at the Securities and Exchange Commission. Together, they open a window on who’s investing in Louisville’s news media at a time when the once-dominant Courier-Journal has been losing influence amid steep staff cutbacks, shifting the balance of power in Kentucky’s biggest city. They underscore the importance of news outlets everywhere telling readers who’s behind the scenes, and about any conflicts of interest owners may pose for their publication. (I’ve got disclosures of my own.)
This morning, at the bottom of a long story about the Humana Foundation, Insider Louisville editors added this disclosure: “One of the five directors of the Humana Foundation is David A. Jones Jr., an investor of Insider Louisville.”
To be sure, close readers of Insider Louisville have known Jones was an investor for several years. In August 2014, owner Tom Cottingham told readers he’d brought in three new minority investors he knew from a prior venture: Jones; Doug Cobb, the former Greater Louisville Inc. CEO, and Jon Pyles, now the site’s vice president of marketing. The story — which carried only a “staff” byline — didn’t say how much they’d invested, nor the exact size of their stake. Cottingham said he remained the majority holder.
Now, though, an SEC document filed in April offers more clues about the publication’s investors, whom we learned this summer include a prominent heiress to the glittering Brown-Forman whiskey fortune. I can’t find any mention of the regulatory filing on Insider Louisville’s website, nor in any other media outlet in Louisville. My readers may well correct me after I publish this post; in any case, this is certainly the first time I’m writing about it.
The April 12 document shows that Insider Louisville LLC raised $975,000 from 12 investors in a $1.5 million stock offering that drew the first investment March 31. It didn’t identify the investors by name, however, and it didn’t say how big their stakes were. The first $450,000 was to pay down an undisclosed amount of debt, according to the document; anything left over would go to any of its directors: Jones, Cottingham, and a third named Jamie Wilson. (Who’s Wilson? I haven’t figured that out; maybe one of my readers knows.)
Named after Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug campaign, the “just say no” defense has had varying degrees of success, according to Steven Davidoff Solomon, a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley. “Yahoo used it to fight off a $44.6 billion bid from Microsoft eight years ago,” he writes in The New York Times. “Though some dispute how serious Microsoft was at the end, Yahoo’s initial rebuff looks like a clear mistake in retrospect, as its core business recently sold for $4.8 billion.”
The risk in this strategy is that The Courier-Journal’s owner, Gannett Co., walks away instead of acquiring Tronc, leaving its rival newspaper publisher to wither like Yahoo or find its own path to success, Solomon says. And if you accept Gannett’s argument, that would effectively leave the CJ and all its 108 other sister publications in a less competitive position in a future dominated by digital media.
So far, however, Tronc appears to be winning. Gannett’s initial offer last April was $12.25 a share, or $815 million. It boosted it to $15 the next month, or $864 million. And a published report last week says Gannett raised it again, to around $18 — even as Tronc is holding out for something closer to $20.
If it wins, Gannett would add the L.A. paper, plus the Chicago Tribune, seven other big dailies and 160 smaller weekly and monthly niche titles to its existing portfolio of 109 publications in the U.S. and U.K. It would also add 7,000 Tronc employees to the nearly 19,000 it already employs.
To paraphrase a famous misquote, what’s good for Gannett is good for its Courier-Journal subsidiary here in Louisville. That was the gist of Gannett’s argument in favor of its $815 million offer last spring for Tribune Publishing — now called Tronc, the parent company of The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, seven other big dailies, and 160 smaller weekly and monthly niche titles and their more than 7,000 employees.
“As one company,” Gannett said April 25 in disclosing its surprise offer, “Gannett and Tribune would have the financial stability to continue maintaining journalistic excellence, independence, high standards and integrity for years to come.”
The immediate path to that goal would be the $50 million Gannett predicted the two companies would save if they consolidated overlapping functions, which means eliminating jobs in areas like finance, marketing and production, and through greater purchasing power for things like newsprint and technology.
Today, with the Tronc deal looking more likely than ever — a published report last week said the two companies are now just haggling over a considerably sweetened final price — it makes sense to turn to the possible impact on the CJ.
The Louisville paper is a much smaller operation than it was 10 years ago, before the newspaper industry cratered during the financial collapse. It’s no longer Kentucky’s dominant statewide paper, and its influence even in Louisville has diminished as other news outlets have started from scratch (Insider Louisville) or bulked up (WDRB and, just last month, LEO Weekly’s parent).
The latest Gannett offer for rival newspaper publisher Tronc is in the mid-$18-a-share range vs. the last known offer of $15, and came during a face-to-face meeting in Los Angeles with Gannett CEO Bob Dickey; Gannett chairman John Jeffry Louis; Tronc chairman Michael Ferro, and Tronc CEO Justin Dearborn.
That’s according to a report yesterday by industry watcher Ken Doctor of Politico, who’s been bird-dogging the unfolding drama. He says Ferro might agree to a deal at $20 or slightly less.
Wall Street took Doctor’s report seriously enough to bid up Tronc’s TRNC as much as 8% yesterday, before it slid back to a closing price of $16.84, up 3% for the day. Gannett’s GCI closed at $11.93, down less than 1%.
A deal for the owner of the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, nine other large newspapers, plus dozens of smaller titles, could have far-reaching implications for The Courier-Journal and its 108 sister titles, depending on how Gannett reallocates personnel and financial resources to absorb the Tronc titles. Louisville is a regional headquarters for a customer service center and a page-production hub handling design work for other dailies in the chain.
Doctor’s latest story is revealing because it’s the first to report the $18 figure — until yesterday, reports only said Gannett was preparing an unspecified higher bid — and it shows Ferro and the board are now engaged in talks. Previously, Tronc had refused to even negotiate, despite pressure from a major hedge fund investor.
Underscoring that last point, Ferro and the board met a week ago to discuss a counter-offer, although it’s unclear whether one was formally made to Gannett, Doctor says. Still, his conclusion yesterday: “It’s apparently no longer a question of whether to sell or not, but for how much.”
The automaker today unveiled a free virtual reality app that (almost) literally puts U.S. consumers in the driver’s seat. Ford says the new app for iOS and Android users “delivers a powerful storytelling platform for consumers and fans to experience Ford innovations like never before,” according to a press release.
The first content is the story behind the new Ford GT’s return to the iconic French 24 Hours of Le Mans race in June. (Eight-plus minute video, above, but you’ll need to watch it with the app.) Ford developed the software with production company Tool of North America, in Santa Monica, Calif., a leader in virtual reality and 360-degree content and mobile app creation. Consumers can download the app now for iOS and Android. More about Ford’s Louisville operations.
Ford’s app follows Brown-Forman’s dive into VR in mid-July with a 360-degree VR video promoting the flagship Jack Daniel’s brand on its 150th anniversary. The spirits maker showed it at festivals this summer, with plans also for September’s Life is Beautiful in Las Vegas. Watch that video here:
Companies across industries see potential in VR marketing to reach the most coveted consumers, young buyers attracted to the latest technologies. Especially hot sectors include auto, travel and fashion, according to Inc. magazine. Volvo launched a “Volvo Reality” app, immersing consumers in a VR test drive. “Shot on a 60-mile stretch of road,” Inc. said last spring, “this first-ever fully immersive virtual reality test drive blends a CG build of the interior of the car with footage shot on a 60-mile stretch of road in Vancouver, and can be viewed with or without Google Cardboard.”
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