Tronc is hoping its sale of the Los Angeles Times and San Diego Union-Tribune will close “in days or weeks,” the company’s CFO, Terry Jiminez, told investors during a conference call to discuss the company’s fourth-quarter results.
The sale to biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong, for $500 million in cash plus the assumption of $90 million of pension liability, was announced just last month. It will give the print and digital concern, which was spun off from Tribune Media in 2014 with a quirky new name signifying “Tribune online content,” a big infusion of cash. “We are talking with our board about the best utilization of that cash,” Jiminez said. Asked by an analyst if the company would consider using the cash to pay down debt, he added, “We’d be in a position to retire all of our debt if that’s what our board decides.”
The sale of the Times follows a grueling period of months when publisher Ross Levinsohn was placed on leave during an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct (he has since been reinstated) and the newsroom staff voted to unionize. The unionization vote followed a sharp decline in morale during the brief tenure of former editor-in-chief Lewis D’Vorkin, who clashed with editorial staffers and appeared to take sides against the news troops during a dispute with Disney. D’Vorkin was eventually reassigned to a Tronc digital role and replaced at the Times by former Chicago Sun-Times editor Jim Kirk.
In the fourth quarter ending December 31, Tronc booked a net loss of $400,000, or a penny a share, compared with net income of $19.4 million, or 53 cents a share in the same quarter of 2016. Total revenue inched up 2% to $435, but total ad revenue fell 5% in the quarter and nearly 12% for the full year.
Digital results were a bright spot in the quarter, the company emphasized. Ad revenue in the digital arena increased 19%; the number of new digital-only subscribers doubled to 320,000; and the number of average monthly unique visitors reached 79.3 million, up 40% from the same period a year earlier.
Tronc’s stock slumped in 2015 and 2016 as investors tried to make sense of its strategic direction, internal politics and decision to resist merger offers from fellow newspaper publisher Gannett. It has rallied almost 50% over the past year, however, to return to 2014 levels.