Tribune Co. may file for bankruptcy

by DENNIS K. BERMAN, SHIRA OVIDE and MATTHEW KARNITSCHNIG, Wall Street Journal

Tribune Co. is preparing for a possible filing for bankruptcy-court protection as soon as this week, according to people familiar with the matter, in a sign of worsening trouble for the newspaper industry.

In recent days, as Chicago-based Tribune continued talks with lenders to restructure its debt, the newspaper-and-television concern hired investment bank Lazard Ltd. as its financial adviser and law firm Sidley Austin to advise the company on a possible trip through Chapter 11 bankruptcy, people familiar with the matter say.

A Tribune spokesman said the company doesn't comment on rumors or speculation. Tribune owns eight major daily newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Baltimore Sun, plus a string of local TV stations.

A spokeswoman for Lazard didn't respond to requests for comment. Representatives of Sidley Austin couldn't be reached for comment.

Tribune's latest actions underscore the deepening distress enveloping Tribune and other newspaper publishers. Their businesses are being battered by dwindling advertising sales, and many are carrying debt loads that are unmanageable in current market conditions. Industry insiders expect some papers will need to fold in coming months or seek protection from creditors to reorganize.

Tribune has been on wobbly footing since last December, when real-estate mogul Samuel Zell led a debt-backed deal to take the company private. Tribune has stayed ahead of its $12 billion in borrowings with the help of asset sales. Now, however, shrinking profits are tightening the noose.

The company's cash flow may not be enough to cover nearly $1 billion in interest payments due this year, and Tribune owes a $512 million debt payment in June.

One of Tribune's most pressing concerns: The company is likely to be in violation of debt terms that limit borrowings at the end of the year to nine times its adjusted profits. The ratio stood at 8.3 at the end of the second quarter, before Tribune reported an 83% decline in operating profit for the three months ended Sept 28.

Violations of such debt covenants have become commonplace for newspaper companies as their profits have ebbed. Lenders so far have been willing to give the companies a pass in exchange for higher interest rates and other concessions, but Tribune has little wiggle room. Terms of the company's debt already are so loose and its financial standing so unsteady that a covenant waiver may not help.

To be sure, a restructuring outside of bankruptcy court remains an option for Tribune. Executives have indicated that its talks with lenders are amicable, and it remains possible the two sides can agree to rework the company's borrowings on their own, as other newspaper publishers are doing.

Tribune's hiring of Lazard, meanwhile, brings it a firm experienced in debt restructuring, and one that has become a go-to adviser for newspaper companies in financial distress.

Even as its financial performance worsens, Tribune has some options. A sale of its Chicago Cubs baseball team is under way, and Tribune owns valuable stakes in businesses including the cable-TV channel Food Network.

Tribune already has auctioned off pieces of the company, including the Long Island, N.Y., daily Newsday to raise cash. Now, frozen credit markets have depressed sale prices.

Selling off more newspapers may not be a viable alternative because buyers are scarce and Tribune may be better off holding onto the profits from its papers.

article originally published at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122868944355686385.html.

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