Tribune lets deadline pass without news about buyer

Firm still weighing pair of offers

The battle of the billionaires for the Tribune Co. remained undecided Sunday despite a supposed deadline for completing the company's long-running strategic review by the end of the first quarter.

Up to Saturday's deadline and seemingly beyond, Tribune execs were combing through details of competing bids by Chicago real estate titan Sam Zell and the Los Angeles-based duo of Eli Broad and Ron Burkle. Each of the individuals involved in those two lead bids boasts a personal net worth writ in 10 digits.

Both bids involve employee stock-ownership plans and related tax breaks, with the Broad-Burkle plan valued at $34 a share and Zell's at $33 a share. Representing potential sale prices of $8.2 billion or $7.9 billion, respectively, the bids appeared well higher than any other serious offers to date.

Self-described Internet publisher Andy Martin issued a news release Saturday promising to circulate a plan this week valued at $35 a share. But it wasn't immediately clear how Martin intended to finance the proposal.

A source close to the bidding process said the Broad-Burkle group was contacted at 2 p.m. PDT Friday with several questions about its bid. But the Chicago Tribune reported Sunday, quoting an unnamed source, that Tribune officials preferred doing a deal with Zell.

"This was a self-imposed deadline, so it wouldn't surprise me if they just postpone it all," veteran newspaper analyst John Morton said Sunday. "The worst time to make a decision is when your getting information right up to the last minute."

Tribune owns 11 newspapers (including the Los Angeles Times), 23 television stations and the Chicago Cubs baseball team. The Chicago-based media group has been conducting a wide-ranging strategic review since September, initially considering both the potential sale of individual businesses or of the entire company.

But Tribune said March 8 that won't consider paring off the Times in any separate transaction. The company said it's not interested in disposing of any more of its newspaper assets once it completes the proposed sale of two Connecticut dailies to Gannett.

Hollywood's David Geffen floated a $2 billion offer for the Times early in the strategic review, but it was never clear that Tribune seriously considered the offer. Los Angeles' Chandler family, which formerly owned the Times and is a major shareholder in Tribune, appeared unimpressed by the value of Geffen's offer.

Burkle and Broad first surfaced with an offer for Tribune last year but raised their bid after Zell began kicking Tribune's tires in early March. Within a week or so, the real estate tycoon had proposed a takeover valued at $33 a share, which prompted the Broad-Burkle group to boost its bid Thursday to $34 a share.

Tribune first set a deadline of Dec. 31 for concluding its strategic review, then changed that to March 31. Throughout the process, reports circulated that the company might nix all of the offers of interest and instead mount a leveraged buyout to take Tribune private.

Tribune shares have languished at about $30 for months, but news of an imminent sale announcement helped the stock hit the weekend at $32.11. That represented a one-day jump of 58 cents, or 1.8%.