It was late 2006, and Los Angeles Times managing editor Leo Wolinsky had been summoned to the home of entertainment mogul David Geffen. A billionaire five times over, Geffen was interested in buying the newspaper Wolinsky edited. Very interested. His opening bid, as the Times itself would later report: $2 billion. Cash.
Wolinsky recalls driving past Geffen’s imposing gates for what felt like a good mile, across the palatial estate once owned by Warner Bros. founder Jack Warner, through a manicured park. Geffen said he employed 13 full-time gardeners.
“Look, I could do it with 10,” Geffen said. “But I want it done right.”
The two talked about the L.A. Times. Actually, it was mostly Geffen who did the talking.
“He knew what he wanted to do,” Wolinsky says. “I asked a question or two, and he launched into a two-hour — I wouldn’t call it a diatribe — a monologue, about everything. He really thought he could save the paper.”
Geffen never had the chance to make a formal offer. His overtures were rejected out of hand by Dennis FitzSimons, CEO of Tribune Co., the Times‘ corporate parent. Its board of directors thought it could do better selling the entire Tribune package: eight newspapers, more than 20 TV stations, the Chicago Cubs and a 30 percent stake in the Food Network.
Indeed they did, when investor Sam Zell borrowed $12 billion to buy it in an audacious and tragically timed leveraged buyout on the eve of the global financial collapse.
Last month, Tribune Co. and the Los Angeles Times emerged from a bitterly contested, four-year bankruptcy drama. Now there’s every expectation that the L.A. Times will be sold to a new owner, possibly even before the end of spring.
The Geffen episode stands as a tantalizing what-if — what if David Geffen had bought the paper and run it like his garden? Would things be any different?
“When it became clear that [Tribune] was going to go to Zell, [Geffen] predicted the paper would be severely cut,” Wolinsky says. “He said if they took the paper apart, he wouldn’t be interested in it. I haven’t heard from him since.”
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