My new column, Deal Or No Deal, compares what’s happening with Eli Broad, Ron Burkle and David Geffen and the Los Angeles Times/Tribune Co. to NBC’s hit game show and asks the question: Broad, Burkle, Geffen… when it comes to the Times, whose briefcase is bigger? (Thursday’s New York Times also looks at Geffen’s interest in buying the paper. But the story has nothing new in it.) In my view, more and more, the newspaper on Spring Street is beginning to resemble Deal or No Deal. Forget all those ink-stained news males: bring on the female eye candy. Or better yet, the really rich guys. Hollywood mogul David Geffen is still an enthusiastic contestant to buy the Los Angeles Times; in fact, he’s so eager he’s already planning what he’ll do once he owns it (more on that below). Like any great game show, though, the stakes just got raised. Today, two other Los Angeles billionaires, investor tycoon Eli Broad and supermarket magnate Ron Burkle, have opened their briefcases. Only this time, fueled either by local pride or a lower-than-expected sale price, Broad and Burkle jointly submitted a bid to acquire the Times’ big-media, loser parent Tribune Co. In terms of fortunes, Eli Broad’s is valued at $5.6 billion; Ron Burkle’s at $2.5 billion, David Geffen’s at $4.6 billion. Broad and Burkle could outgame Geffen by buying the entire parent company first, whereas David only wanted the paper and not the other assets. Then, again, no one outgames Geffen. Everyone in Hollywood knows that. I’ve been reporting for months how Geffen’s pursuit of the Tribune Co.’s most troubled outpost not only hasn’t flagged, it has fired up, and not just because the paper’s 20 percent profit margin is so much better than the 6 percent earned by his bonds. Now I’m told Geffen is starting to plan what he intends to do at the paper once it’s his. Here’s what he’s saying to friends: He’ll pour money into more hires. He plans to staff — more like stuff — the paper with name writers and journalism stars. (Of course, he’ll raid The New York Times, where Frank Rich and his wife, Alex Witchel, are his good friends and occasional overnight guests. So are Nora Ephron and Nick Pileggi. So are a lot of literati.) He’ll demand quality. He’ll ratchet up the Web site (even though he hates how prohibitively expensive it is to do that). He’ll figure out a way to bring in Latinos as readers. Geffen loathes how boring, badly written, inconsequential and pedestrian the L.A. Times’ editorial and opinion section is. He thinks nobody reads it. He knows nobody talks about it. Most of all, he wants his newspaper to be talked about. He’ll put the newsroom ahead of the ludicrous profit margins demanded by Wall Street and the Tribune Co. That’s not to say he wants to lose money, just that he thinks it’s a good investment already (though not if its stock price keeps dropping). What not to expect from Geffen is that he’ll devote every waking minute of his life to the venture. But, at 63, he’s looking for a new challenge. The movie biz, well, that hasn’t excited him for years. His Oscar-touted pic Dreamgirls could be his last showbiz hurrah. (And some scenes from it were, ironically, filmed inside the LA Times building.) Besides, look at the lengths he’s going to make the paper his. First, there are all those recent art sales he’s making. True, he’s timed it to the top of the art market, but the hundreds of millions of dollars he’s getting could be going into his war chest to buy the LA Times. Even if Burkle and Broad beat him to the first bid, Geffen is well positioned to get what he wants. Consider his friendship with Tribune investor John W. Rogers Jr., the Ariel Capital Management chairman and CEO, as well as with Rogers’ protégée and powerhouse Ariel president Mellody Hobson, who sits on the board of DreamWorks Animation. (When Hobson visits L.A., she often stays at Geffen’s mansions.) Geffen was also one of those bold-faced names who met with LA Times managing editor Leo Wolinsky about a possible purchase of the paper. As I reported back in September, Wolinsky, acting as editor Dean Baquet’s surrogate, was playing a dangerous game with the paper’s integrity by having secret talks with the “billionaire boys’ club” to drum up local support for a local buyer of the LA Times. But Wolinsky himself refused to confirm or deny or even discuss the meetings with me. I found it bizarre that both Wolinsky and Baquet were so blind to the obvious need for transparency here. So, now, Geffen, Broad, Burkle… Deal or No Deal?
Read the rest of my Deal or No Deal column, including my analysis about who’s winning and losing a day after rebellious L.A. Times editor Dean Baquet, who refused to cooperate on further staff cuts with new publisher and Tribune Co. bagman David Hiller, was replaced with Chicago Tribune ME James O’Shea. Also, for the latest LA Times/Tribune Co. twists and turns, see Kevin Roderick’s LAObserved.com.
Previous: Broad/Burkle Bid for LA Times’ Parent, LA Times’ Editor Dean Baquet Out; Chicago Trib ME James O’Shea In, David Geffen, Chicago Is Calling On Line 1, LA Times: Sleepovers at David Geffen’s, Finke/LA Weekly: Dean of Sycophants (And The Paper Drops A Bomb), LA TIMES CHAOS: Current Publisher Fired; Tribune Toadie Hired; Baquet Shows Himself To Be Gutless Wonder, Finke/LA Weekly: Baquet’s Billionaire Boys Club; Geffen ‘Confident’ LAT Buy, EXCLUSIVE: Top LA Times Editors Loyal To Baquet Said To Have A ‘Suicide Pact’, The Michael Kinsley Experiment Ends, Baquet Begins