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Tribune, a Big US Media Group, Goes Bankrupt

Sam Zell borrowed heavily to buy the company. Now, a year later, it becomes the victim of a weak economy and decreasing newspaper readership. Transcript of radio broadcast:

This is the VOA Special English Economics Report.

One of America's largest media companies has sought protection from its creditors in bankruptcy court. The Tribune Company owns the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun and other newspapers. It also owns twenty-three television stations and the Chicago Cubs baseball team.

Sam Zell, one of the nation's biggest property owners, took control a year ago. He led a stock buyout for eight billion dollars. He borrowed almost all of it.

Many buyouts in recent years were heavily financed with debt. But Tribune was struggling with thirteen billion dollars of debt in a recession. It lost more than one hundred twenty million dollars between July and September.

Tribune sought protection Monday under Chapter Eleven of the bankruptcy laws. Chapter Eleven lets a business continue to operate while it seeks to restructure its debt.

Sam Zell blamed what he called a "perfect storm" of economic conditions including a credit crisis. But critics say he simply borrowed too much.

Tribune is the country's first major newspaper group to declare bankruptcy since the rise of the Internet in the middle of the nineteen nineties. Profits have been shrinking as newspapers lose readers and advertisers to competition from new media. The Christian Science Monitor, for example, plans to publish only online by April.

Newspapers have, in fact, been losing readers since the eighties. But things are a lot worse now. Circulation in the six months ending in September was down almost five percent from the year before. Some papers fell more than ten percent. The two largest newspapers, however, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal, reported little change.

The New York Times is third; it was down about four percent. But Executive Editor Bill Keller says the Times is still profitable and had a billion page views on its Web site in October.

"Good journalism does not come cheap," he says. "And, therefore, you're not going to find a lot of blogs or nonprofit Web sites that are going to build a Baghdad bureau."

He spoke recently on National Public Radio. NPR says it just had a year of near-record audience levels on the radio and online, as other journalism investments decreased. But over the next year, the nonprofit network predicts a big deficit because of less giving by companies in the downturn. So this week it cut seven percent of its jobs and canceled two programs.

And that's the VOA Special English Economics Report, written by Mario Ritter. I'm Steve Ember.