I’ve written here again and again how much David Geffen wants to own the Los Angeles Times and put it back under local control as well as make it a real must-read. But the Hollywood mogul was rebuffed first by the Tribune Co’s CEO Dennis Fitzimmons and then by current owner Sam Zell. Now Geffen may be looking for a third chance to buy the paper. I’m told by a source that Geffen and Zell are “in serious discussions” regarding a sale. It’s all very hush-hush, but my source tells me: “Cash flow is not being met for the bankers, revenue is in freefall, and the potential liability on the Combs story is huge. Sam feels he bought a bill of goods. Geffen is back in the mix and he’s going to get it for a deep discount. They’re in serious discussions.”
UPDATE: However, Geffen has been on his yacht vacationing in the South Pacific for weeks. And a Geffen insider insists that the DreamWorks partner and Zell haven’t spoken in months.
Some background is needed. I’ve reported previously that, not long before Dean Baquet became the LA Times editor in July 2005, Jeffrey Katzenberg sought a meet-and-greet to announce that Geffen really wanted to buy the newspaper. Baquet was shocked. “How’s he going to feel the first time we review a movie or music produced by a friend of his?” Baquet asked. Katzenberg just laughed. After that, Geffen’s pursuit of Tribune’s troubled outpost didn’t flag — if anything, it got fired up — until Zell became involved. I’d been told he was “very serious” and “pretty confident” about purchasing the paper someday soon. “He believes that he’s going to be the owner,” an insider explained back in 2006 even though a growing list of fat-cat Los Angelenos were lining up as potential purchases, including Eli Broad and Ron Burkle. But anyone familiar with Hollywood knows how relentless Geffen can be: What David wants, David gets. As a source explained: “He has never stopped doing anything until he’s done.”
So, in September 2005, Geffen invited Baquet’s inside man Leo Wolinsky [now the paper’s recently named features and entertainment czar] to his Beverly Hills estate, and together they discussed the possibility of Geffen buying the paper with Baquet’s blessing. Ultimately, Geffen made a formal all-cash offer of $2 bil for the LA Times in November 2006, but parent company Tribune CEO Fitzimmons rejected the bid. When Zell came into the mix, Tribune Co made clear it was selling the whole company to the Chicago real estate titan in a complicated financial arrangement that threatens employee pensions.
Nevertheless, Geffen still hoped to land the LA Times. He and Zell know each other in Malibu, where both billionaires have their de rigeur beach houses. Geffen heaped praise on Zell in conversations with his insiders: How Sam is a straight-shooter and an honest guy. How Sam wants to win more than any other person Geffen has met in his life. Geffen even proposed running the paper as some kind of joint venture with Zell to circumvent all the tax consequences and corporate regulation. The two men met, but Zell rebuffed Geffen’s overture. After that, it looked like Geffen’s quest was quixotic.
Remember all the changes which Geffen planned to make on Spring Street? They sound like Nirvana now especially as Zell seems intent on running the place into the ground prestige-wise. I’ve previously reported that Geffen would pour money into more hires. He wants 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 is Maureen Dowd. So are a lot of literati like Nora Ephron and Nick Pileggi. And don’t forget Arianna Huffington.) He’ll demand quality. He’ll ratchet up the Web site. He’ll figure out a way to bring in Latinos as readers. He’ll overhaul what he thinks are the boring, badly written, inconsequential and pedestrian editorial and opinion sections. He wants the paper to be read and talked about. He’ll put the newsroom ahead of the ludicrous profit margins demanded by Wall Street. That’s not to say he wants to lose money, just that he thinks it could be a good investment.
What not to expect from Geffen is that he’ll devote every waking minute of his life to the venture. I know that, last time around, he sought advice from press lord Rupert Murdoch who tried to talk him out of it. Murdoch advised Geffen this about owning a newspaper: “Every day is going to be a headache for you. I’m used to these headaches. You’re not.” But it’s well-known that Geffen is looking for a new challenge. The movie biz hasn’t excited him for years. His Dreamgirls pic was his last hurrah. And all that’s left is for him to move DreamWorks out of Paramount and into a friendlier partnership with NBC Universal and be done with showbiz altogether.