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Media General sells Tribune, TBO to investment group

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 04:19 PM
TAMPA -

The Tampa Tribune was purchased by a private equity investment group and beginning today will be operated by a newly created, locally based company called the Tampa Media Group.

The Tribune's longtime corporate owner, Virginia-based Media General Inc., announced the transaction this morning, transferring ownership of the Tribune, its affiliated newspapers and TBO.com to the Los Angeles-based Revolution Capital Group.

The purchase price was $9.5 million.

"This deal gives us the opportunity to do what makes sense for this local market," Tribune publisher William Barker said. "It gives us the ability to be outwardly focused and not worry about how some larger corporation leverages us."

Revolution Capital founder and managing partner Robert Loring said some investment funds might look at buying a newspaper as "contrarian," but the Tribune "checked many of the boxes we were looking for in terms of our criteria."

That includes long-running operations, established customers and the potential to add value with investment in new technology.

Asked if the plan was to buy, cut costs and resell the Tribune, Loring said it was not.

"We are definitely in this for the long haul," he said. "We don't flip businesses."

The deal represents a substantial financial investment, Barker said, and means that Tampa will continue to have a newspaper that is locally produced and printed in the city and reflects the values and concerns of the community.

"It's a bittersweet day for Media General to complete the sale of its last remaining newspaper group," said Marshall N. Morton, president and chief executive officer of Media General, noting the Tribune was the company's largest and second-oldest newspaper.

Media General will retain its NBC television affiliate, WFLA, News Channel 8. However, the newspaper and station will continue a news partnership that began in the late 1990s when they moved into a new building on the west side of the Hillsborough River.

The newsrooms of WFLA, TBO.com and the Tribune will continue to work together, officials said, likely with staffers from each attending daily news meetings and working on joint news projects.

In the coming months, the Tribune will go through a transition phase to move back-office operations to the local company, including human resources, accounting and payroll.

Tribune newsroom employees will move from the building they now share with WFLA on Parker Street to the building next door, where the Tribune newsroom previously operated since the 1970s.

The Tampa Media Group will have 618 employees and will continue to operate the Tribune's affiliated publications: Hernando Today, Highlands Today, Suncoast News, Sunbelt Newspapers and the Spanish-language publication Centro.

The Tribune's mission, Barker said, will remain providing news and information that is focused on the issues that affect those who live and work in the Tampa area.

"Any change will be to better deliver on that promise," he said. "Our new owners see great opportunity in this newspaper, this community and this market" with a paper that's free of a larger corporate bureaucracy.

For instance, before the transaction, the Tribune had the burden of corporate overhead and the expectation of outside stockholders. The new arrangement will let the Tribune be more agile in making changes and launching new projects. That includes investing in new technology to gather news.

Loring had been vice president at Platinum Equity and director for HIG European Capital Partners in London. Revolution's other founding partner is Cyrus Nikou, who started the lender Funded Capital and previously was managing partner of the financial services company IMC.

Typically, such private equity firms acquire companies because they see a profitable way to improve operations or a way to shift their strategy to make them attractive to future potential buyers or for an initial public offering.

Revolution tends to acquire smaller-sized operations, including the fabric manufacturer Lawrence Schiff Silk Mills of Quakertown, Pa., and the software and financial information company CapXG of Valencia, Calif.

Compared with a manufacturing company, a newspaper has a special constitutional role in a democracy, and Loring noted the paper must be willing to challenge the powerful and wealthy, even at the cost of revenue.

"We believe reporters need to be given their independence, and a paper has a responsibility to report accurately on what it finds," he said, adding that Revolution has no interest in directing the paper's political outlook.

Revolution thus joins slew of buyers and sellers trading media properties. Daytona Beach-based Halifax Media Group, for instance, has acquired several media properties in Florida, including the Gainesville Sun, The Ledger in Lakeland and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Deals like that have resulted in several dozen papers in the Southeast changing hands in the past year.

Increasingly, private equity firms are emerging as players in the media market.

"I wouldn't want to disclose our game plan," Nikou said, "except to say that we are looking at the Tribune as a long-term investment and multimedia play in the future." Loring added, "We are here to stay."

Today's sale marks a new chapter for the Tribune, a newspaper that has published daily for more than a century.

The paper traces its roots to 1893, when 24-year-old printer and newspaperman Wallace F. Stovall moved his existing newspaper operations from Bartow to Tampa. Stovall ran his first edition of the Tampa Morning Tribune on March 27, 1893, and soon attacked the rival Daily Times paper as a tool of Henry Plant's railroad, according to an official history of the Tribune. Stovall sided with "the working man against the 'clique,' " with devout support of the Democratic Party

Just 12 employees appear in an 1895 photograph taken in front of the paper's wood office at Franklin and Washington streets, but they published national news and local color items such as the story of "Capt. T.E. Jackson's" runaway horse on Franklin Street. They championed causes like better sewers and sanitation in a town where many of the main roads were still dirt.

Speaking in 1950, Stovall recalled, "When I got here I was banking on the fact that Henry B. Plant was building his fine, big Tampa Bay Hotel, and cigar factories were just moving here from Key West. That was enough for me, but do you know nobody was interested in a new newspaper? And they didn't think the town would grow either."

Instead, both the paper and the town thrived over the decades, and on May 31, 1958, the company bought the struggling Tampa Daily Times and started publishing both the Tribune and Tampa Times. That merger ultimately brought over several notable reporters and columnists. In 1966, both papers were bought by Richmond Newspapers, and the company acquired full control of WFLA-TV.

Media General Inc. was created as a holding company for the media properties in 1969.

The last edition of the Times was Aug. 14, 1982, though the Times' name remains on the Tribune masthead.

At one point in 1988, the man who pioneered "The Dating Game" and "Gong Show," Burt Sugarman, tried to take over Media General, but the Richmond-based Bryan family prevailed and continued decades of ownership of a company that operated more than 30 weeklies and dailies then, plus several TV stations and a major paper mill.

In 1999, the company's Tampa newsroom became a test bed of news publishing when it fully converged the newsroom of the Tribune and News Channel 8 – with news staff sharing story ideas and tips on news, and with journalists appearing in print, broadcast and on the shared website TBO.com.

News Channel 8 remains the ratings leader in the time slots when it broadcasts. And the Tribune remains one of the state's largest papers, with a daily circulation of 144,510 and a Sunday circulation of 262,369.

TBO.com attracts more than 14 million page views a month, making it the area's No. 1 news website.

At the same time, newsrooms worldwide have struggled with declining advertising revenue and are searching for ways to innovate as more readers opt to read news online for free.

More readers are getting their news on the go, reading on cellphones and tablets. More than half of phones sold are smart phones, and in the second quarter alone, tablet shipments set yet another record, reaching 25 million, up 77 percent from this time last year, according to ABI Research.

Amid this, Media General shifted away from convergence, and executives launched a drive this year to become purely a TV broadcast company. It put the newspaper division up for sale, and sold 63 daily and weekly titles to Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway for $142 million. The Tribune wasn't part of that sale because Buffet's focus was on smaller publications, and Media General opened up a bidding process for the Tribune that ran through the summer.

Several potential buyers stepped forward and put in bids, but Media General ultimately selected Revolution.

Nikou said the Tribune is being positioned for the future.

"We are focused on making the Tribune a viable, long-term business," he said.


rmullins@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7919 Twitter: @DailyDeadline

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