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Justice Department to monitor Chicago Tribune parent tronc’s plan to buy Chicago Sun-Times

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Tronc, which owns the Chicago Tribune, is seeking to acquire rival newspaper the Chicago Sun-Times.

Sun-Times‘ owner Wrapports, LLC, informed the Department of Justice about the deal, alerting it if the transaction is completed, then Tronc would own and operate the Sun-Times as a separate unit, keeping in place the independent newsroom.

The Justice Department’s antitrust division, which is responsible for investigating newspaper mergers, said it would be monitoring the process. Other potential buyers have 15 days to come forward or the newspaper will be sold to tronc, the companies told the department. The companies did not disclose a price for the deal.

Historically, the DOJ has been against one owner controlling two newspapers in a market. But as the print industry been challenged by economics and other media outlets, regulators might approve this one, says Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at The Poynter Institute. “These days newspapers don’t really control the action in a city,” he said. “There are different competitors now for those dollars, including Google and Facebook.”

Last year, the department stepped in and denied a bid by tronc — then still called Tribune Publishing — in its bid to purchase The Orange County Register because the company already owned The Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune. However, just two months later the department did not prevent The Tampa Bay Times, which is owned by the non-profit Poynter, from acquiring its rival The Tampa Tribune.

The potential for the Sun-Times‘ demise without a new owner might outweigh concerns about tronc’s ownership of two local papers, Edmonds says. “It’s been a relatively weaker paper for some time .. (and) probably has lost money more than it’s made it in this decade,” he said.

Wrapports, which has owned the Sun-Times since 2012, began talks with tronc after if failed to find other suitors in Chicago and beyond, the company said Monday. The two companies already have a relationship: the tronc-owned Chicago Tribune has printed and distributed the Sun-Times for several years.

And Michael Ferro, the chairman of tronc, previously controlled the Sun-Times and put his stake in the paper into a charitable trust last year when his investment firm, Merrick Media, paid $44.4 million for a 16.6% stake in then-Tribune Publishing. “He may have a theory of how the two papers would do two different things and both be viable,” Edmonds said.

Last year, Gannett, which owns USA TODAY and 109 local news properties, spent several months attempting to acquire tronc, but eventually ended discussions because the deal no longer made financial sense.

Should tronc’s deal to acquire the Sun-Times go through it would keep Chicago among the dwindling number of cities with at least two newspapers along with New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Washington and a few others. “There’s very few any more,” Edmonds said.

Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.

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