“Comeuppance” is not a word used often, if at all, in the media business. Sure, it presents itself as a recurrent theme in stories about politics, sports and ruthlessly attacked Asian American seniors who smack their punk assailants with a plank. But in the world of businesspeople acquiring this or that property, it smacks more of rivalry or a spirited bidding war than anything else. Maybe Gannett wants what McClatchy has, or McClatchy in its bankruptcy rushes to find a suitor, as it did in last August.
Then you have the story of an octogenarian Swiss billionaire stepping out of obscurity and the hinterlands of Wyoming. There, he supports wildlife and environmental causes. These days, he dresses in unassuming navy vests worthy of an outdoorsman. And he wants to save the Chicago Tribune, my alma mater for 16 of the best years of my career.
Bottom line: This relatively unknown man has emerged as an unlikely Force for Good to topple the most patently evil hedge fund in journalism history, Alden Global Capital. They don’t write stories like this any better in the New York Times, Hollywood or Bollywood, folks. And if it all goes as many of us hope it does, the slash-and-burn Alden will get its comeuppance.
Our heroic éminence grise has a name as thorny to pronounce as this situation is delicious to consider. Hansjörg Wyss (pronounced “Hans-yorg Vees”) is the former chief executive of Synthes, a medical device firm. And in this case, emergency heart transplant might serve as a splendid metaphor. For Wyss has stepped forward to buy Tribune Publishing with Baltimore hotelier Stewart W. Bainum Jr. for $650 million. Being worth close to $9 billion, Wyss could likely write the check from his petty cash fund. What’s more, this actually beats the $620 million offer made by Alden, which just days ago looked like a lock.
Here is what Wyss told the Times about getting involved in a fray most 85 year olds would avoid in favor of sipping mai tais on Kauna ‘oa Beach:
“Maybe I’m naïve, but the combination of giving enough money to a professional staff to do the right things and putting quite a bit of money into digital will eventually make [the Tribune] a very profitable newspaper.”
Wow. Am I dreaming? This formula echoes what so many at the highest echelons of the industry have proffered for years.
Alden’s vision for journalism: a stake in the eye
Then you have Alden, a company run by a spoiled, ruthless punk named Heath Freeman. Sorry, there’s no better way to put it. Though, I suppose you could consider the lives of all the journalists whose careers Freeman has upended—the sleepless nights, anxious days and overdue bills these workaday pros have faced as he gutted paper after paper—and come up with a better label. Maybe one that rhymes with “trucker” and contains a letter after “e” and before “g.”
Freeman avoids the limelight as much as Wyss. But the differences between these two men, especially from moral and ethical standpoints, couldn’t be any more pronounced. Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo has referred to Alden as “the hedge fund vampire that bleeds newspapers dry.” In a follow-up piece Pompeo quoted Todd Lightly, an ace Tribune investigative reporter and one of my former colleagues: “It’s really disheartening to be owned by someone who does not care about the journalism one iota.”
For the uninitiated, Alden is referred to as a “vulture capitalist” firm. That’s the actual label used in the hedge fund business. The model is fairly simple: Alden wrestles control of companies, often (but not always) struggling, and squeezes them for every last dollar by making draconian cuts and drawing salaries as its opportunists get named to the board. This includes Freeman, who pocketed $340,000 as Alden turned the Fred’s Pharmacy chain into spent grapefruit pulp.
In the same way one might darkly admire a serial killer or a storm trooper, Freeman does this dirty work exceedingly well. When Alden assumed control of the Denver Post, it wiped the newsroom so clean of employees that the remaining staff fought back, posting before-and-after pictures that blacked out all the departed employees. It was chilling. See for yourself. They look almost like chalk lines at a crime scene. Similar massacres have taken place at the San Jose Mercury News, St. Paul Pioneer Press and Orange County Register.
To date, Alden has expunged an estimated 1,000-plus journalists from its newsrooms. And with nearly a one-third stake in Tribune Publishing, many have assumed that the Trib and its sibs, including The Daily News and Baltimore Sun, would be next as of July, when Alden plans to take control of the company.
Or at least it did. On April 5, Tribune Publishing confirmed the rival bid, adding that it could lead to a “superior proposal” to secure the company’s future.
It’s not quite like being cut loose from your job. But if Wyss and Bainum prevail, Heath Freeman might get a taste of how it feels. I can just see him now, shedding tears all over his 1992 Duke basketball jersey worn by Christian Laettner in an NCAA Elite Eight game. Reportedly this is his most prized possession. Freeman paid $119,500 for it in 2014, the second highest price for a basketball jersey in history. That’s $133,593 in 2021 bucks. That’s also the approximate annual salary of 3.25 journalists, using the industry average of $41,207 provided by PayScale.
Who knows what Freeman’s Laettner jersey would sell for today? Or how many jobs it could support? But hey, who’s keeping score?
Roots in journalism, far different fruits
In a nutshell, this is the difference between the black-hatted Freeman and the white-hatted Wyss:
Freeman grew taking in the confrontational style of his father Brian Freeman, an investment banker whose clients included many labor unions. These included one representing journalists and other workers at United Press International. So Heath has a media past to draw on. But it must’ve been a tough childhood: Brian Freeman’s Type-AA workaholism was so pronounced, the Times referenced it in a 1985 profile, mentioning that he hadn’t taken a vacation with five-year-old Heath and his family in more than two years. This may explain a lot. History is littered with the corpses of grown men still trying to get Daddy’s attention and approval. (Brian Freeman passed away in 2001.)
Heath Freeman, it also appears, grew up sucking on a tableware set of silver spoons. His parents founded Duke University’s Freeman Center for Jewish Life. His sisters Danyelle and Amanda attended Duke. As he did. I don’t suppose Heath’s entrance exam was all that hard. Who knows the real story? But can’t you see Lori Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli getting mighty jealous?
Meanwhile: How many intrepid Jewish journalists have lost their livelihoods in Heath Freeman’s tenure running Alden? So much for Jewish life.
Then you have Wyss, who worked as a journalist when he was a young man. As he told the Times, he fondly recalls those days covering skiing for Neue Zürcher Zeitung, a Zurich, Switzerland paper, and American sports for Der Bund, a Bern paper, while he studied at Harvard Business School.
‘500 times more’
Here’s another quote from Wyss worth savoring:
“I have an opportunity to do 500 times more than what I’m doing now… I don’t want to see another newspaper that has a chance to increase the amount of truth being told to the American people going down the drain.”
If he gets his wish, it will be a full circle of sorts. Sam Zell presented himself as a savior of the Tribune when he purchased Tribune Company in 2007. Two years later, largely due to Zell’s leveraged bet gone bad, the largest round of cuts in Chicago journalism history ensued — with 53 newsroom people laid off. (I was one of them.)
Yes, a tragic history could repeat itself. But for Wyss, this appears to be a benevolent crusade backed by business smarts. This rarely if ever happens with a major media property anymore. Let alone one caught in the claws of a bloodthirsty vulture. Oh, that Heath Freeman, who treats journalists like abused, commodified canines, will finally, finally get to eat his own dog food. How yummy!
So I’m watching the headlines closely these days. Those that could detail Wyss’ victory will be peppered with numbers and business terms like “acquire.” One word won’t appear, though I’ll treasure it just the same:
And then: hope.