Nothing is ever all that clear in the battle to own the Orange County Register.
Tribune Publishing Co. announced Thursday that its subsidiary, Orange County Media LLC, was the successful bidder at a public bankruptcy auction to acquire substantially all of the assets of Freedom Communications Inc., owner of the Orange County Register and the Press- Enterprise in Riverside.
But the U.S. Department of Justice quickly filed a civil antitrust lawsuit seeking to block the acquisition of Freedom’s newspapers by the publisher of the Los Angeles Times.
Tribune was selected as purchaser following a bankruptcy auction and will seek bankruptcy court approval of its acquisition on Monday. The Justice Department is seeking a temporary restraining order to prevent the sale to Tribune from proceeding.
According to the department’s complaint, filed in Los Angeles federal court, The Times and the Register together account for 98 percent of newspaper sales in Orange County and the Los Angeles Times and Freedom’s newspapers together account for 81 percent of English-language newspaper sales in Riverside County.
Tribune’s acquisition of its most significant competitor would give it a monopoly over newspaper sales in each county and allow it to increase subscription prices, raise advertising rates and invest less to maintain the quality of its newspapers.
“If this acquisition is allowed to proceed, newspaper competition will be eliminated and readers and advertisers in Orange and Riverside counties will suffer,” said Assistant Attorney General Bill Baer of the DOJ’s antitrust division.
“Newspapers continue to play an important role in the dissemination of news and information to readers and remain an important vehicle for advertisers,” he said. “The antitrust division is committed to ensuring that competition in this important industry is protected.”
Under the terms of the bid, Chicago-based Tribune Publishing has agreed to pay $56 million in cash for Freedom Communications and its real estate in Santa Ana and Riverside, according to the company.
Tribune Publishing’s successful bid is subject to Monday’s hearing. The transaction is subject to customary closing conditions.
“The successful bid for the business of Freedom Communications will allow the Orange County Register and the Press-Enterprise to continue providing a distinct local voice in their communities and deliver premium news and information to consumers across Southern California,” said Tribune Publishing CEO Justin Dearborn.
In addition to The Times, Tribune also owns the San Diego Union-Tribune.
— City News Service
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