published on March 15, 2016 - 8:56 PM
Written by The Business Journal Staff

(AP) — A media group has submitted a $45.5 million bid for the Orange County Register and Press-Enterprise newspapers ahead of the planned auction of Freedom Communications’ assets.

Digital First Media, which owns nine newspapers and websites in Southern California, made the so-called stalking-horse bid, the Los Angeles Daily News, one of the group’s papers, reported Monday.

The bid comes ahead of Wednesday’s planned auction and is expected to be joined by offers from Tribune Publishing, which owns the Los Angeles Times, and an investor group led by Freedom’s current management team.

A hearing to approve the newspapers’ sale is scheduled for next Monday in federal bankruptcy court.

After an aggressive expansion in print journalism that included starting a Los Angeles spinoff and buying the Press-Enterprise for $27 million, the Orange County Register suffered a sharp downturn marked by a series of layoffs and buyouts.

In March 2015, greeting card executive Aaron Kushner and his partner, Eric Spitz, left the company they had bought in 2012. In November, Freedom Communications sought federal bankruptcy protection.

Digital First Media’s bid does not include assuming Freedom’s pension obligations.

“The liabilities were excessive,” said Ron Hasse, publisher of Los Angeles News Group, adding that he understood these would be transferred to a government agency that insures private sector retirement plans.

Buying the two newspapers would give Tribune — which has already purchased the Union-Tribune in San Diego — a vast media bloc stretching from Los Angeles down to the U.S. border with Mexico.

Marshall Anstandig, an attorney for Digital First Media, raised questions about whether Tribune could purchase the newspapers without inviting scrutiny from federal authorities in light of anti-trust laws.

A Tribune spokeswoman declined to comment for the Los Angeles Daily News story.

Last week, Freedom Communications President Rich Mirman said his local investment group was confident they would place the winning bid. He did not return a call for comment from the Daily News.

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