Tribune Rival Picks Up OC Register for $52.3M

     LOS ANGELES (CN) – A federal judge’s temporary restraining order appeared to end Tribune Publishing’s acquisition of the Orange County Register, as a bankruptcy court on Monday approved a $52.3 million offer from Digital First Media.
     This past Friday, U.S. District Judge Andre Birotte granted a temporary restraining order in the government’s antitrust case after Tribune said last week that it made a $56 million bid in a bankruptcy auction to acquire the assets of Freedom Communications, the publisher of the Register and the Press-Enterprise in Riverside.
     Birotte said that the buyout is against the public’s interest, would erode local news coverage, and was anticompetitive.
     The judge was unmoved by the publisher’s argument that his ruling would allow the second bidder, LA Daily News owner Digital First Media, to step in and acquire the two papers or force the papers to liquidate assets when Freedom’s financing runs out on March 31.
     “It may be that Tribune will lose the opportunity to acquire the Register and Press-Enterprise in favor of the second-place bidder,” Birotte wrote in his 11-page order. “However, this private harm does not outweigh the public interest in the preservation of competition, especially given the government’s likelihood of success on the merits.”
     Tribune Publishing’s fears were confirmed Monday when the Justice Department announced that the bankruptcy court had approved Digital First Media’s bid.
     Justice Department official Bill Baer said in a statement that the public depends on local newspapers “even in this age of electronic information” and that they “play an important role in our democracy.”
     “Preventing the Los Angeles Times from combining with the Register and the Press-Enterprise will ensure that citizens and advertisers in Southern California continue to benefit from competition and from a diversity of views in their local news coverage,” Baer said.
     In a statement, Digital First Media publisher Ron Hasse said the Denver-based company is “honored to uphold the values of local journalism.”
     “We look forward to working with award-winning news teams who have dedicated their careers to informing the public about the issues that matter most,” Hasse said. “We are also excited about providing advertisers a broader platform from which to deliver their messages.”
     U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Mark Wallace approved the sale in the Santa Ana federal bankruptcy court.
     Tribune Publishing did not immediately respond to a request for comment by phone.

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