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When the government mistrusts markets: Tribune Publishing’s blocked bid for the O.C. Register
When we at the Tribune have a conflict of interest, you as our readers should know about it. Today we confess not only a conflict, but a long-standing bias: First, our corporate parent, Tribune Publishing, is a player in the news story that prompts us to once again scratch a chronic itch. Second, through its 169 years, the Tribune has noisily championed robust competition among all the companies, individuals and other entities that publish news and commentary. You think your website, your station, your newspaper, can cover Chicago better than we do? Game on.
Decade after decade, though, federal regulators have fretted that in a free marketplace, an ever-smaller number of media voices would somehow monopolize the flow of information to consumers. And, decade after decade, we’ve criticized the regulators’ refusal to acknowledge and applaud the individual judgments that millions of news consumers exercise every day. Example: We could trip a horse with our stack of editorials challenging Washington’s rules about who should or shouldn’t own a newspaper and a TV station in the same metropolitan market.
While we and the regulators were busy quarreling, new technologies and competitive ambitions rendered the debate obsolete — or so we thought. The abundance of news and commentary now available on the Internet, in print, via social media and over cable, TV and radio outlets makes following the news resemble drinking from a water cannon.
So imagine our surprise when the U.S. Department of Justice sued to stop a California company from selling two newspapers to the highest bidder — yes, Tribune Publishing of Chicago. The seller, Freedom Communications, already had shut down its newspapers in Los Angeles and Long Beach, and in November had filed for bankruptcy after losing more than $40 million over two years. At an auction last week, Freedom accepted Tribune Publishing’s $56 million cash bid for the Orange County Register and Riverside Press-Enterprise.