Spinoff Tribune Publishing, parent of Daily Press, to make its debut

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Tribune Tower will no longer belong to the newspaper for which it is named but to the media company from which the paper is spun off Monday. (Alex Garcia, Chicago Tribune / July 30, 2014)

For the first time in 90-plus years, the Chicago Tribune is disconnected from the broadcast business.

Its corporate family has been broken up and the Tribune, the wellspring of an empire built on ideas and innovation, is no longer complemented by the TV and radio industry it helped launch in Chicago.

Now we'll see what the newspaper group is really made of, and just how much that's worth.

What previously was known as Tribune Co. is set Monday to become Tribune Media Co., spinning off this newspaper and corporate siblings such as the Los Angeles Times, The Baltimore Sun and Connecticut's Hartford Courant to make it on their own as Tribune Publishing Co.

They're still referred to as papers despite their increasingly digital orientation in the same way people might say they dial phones. But on paper, pixel, video stream or whatever platform they play, these are organizations that over the decades have survived all manner of challenges from within and without — including a 2008-12 bankruptcy odyssey — and yet this latest may be their biggest and most critical yet.

"I would call it a singular moment," Tribune Publishing Chief Executive Officer Jack Griffin said Friday. "It's a tremendously important inflection point. It has its challenges, but it has its great possibilities."

The newly christened Tribune Publishing has been born into an unforgiving new media environment that has shown little tolerance for faltering first steps.

Stripped down and exposed, cord cut and bottom slapped, the spinoff must move with speed and agility from the moment it hits the Street, officially making its New York Stock Exchange debut Tuesday as a publicly traded company under the symbol TPUB.

This is no trust fund baby. It must run wholly on its own.

Tribune Publishing got Tribune Co.'s newspaper print and digital operations in Chicago, Los Angeles and a half-dozen other markets, along with associated publications such as Chicago Magazine, Hoy and RedEye.

Tribune Media kept everything else, the so-called faster-growth properties, including digital assets the papers played no small role in making prosperous. Here in Chicago, it retains not only WGN-AM 720 (which this newspaper took over in 1924) and WGN-Ch. 9 (which the paper put on the air in 1948), but also Tribune Tower (built by the paper and its home since the 1920s). So the newspapers will be paying rent.

The publishing group gets off the ground with $50 million in cash on its balance sheet and at least $350 million in debt, with $275 million earmarked for a special dividend Tribune Media has demanded.

Griffin, who has been out making presentations to the investment community around the country, said that if he thought any of that was too great a handicap to keep the newspaper company from doing what it needs to do, he wouldn't have taken the post.

"I just got done with the investment roadshow, and there's so much interest in and fascination about pure digital-play companies," Griffin said. "Most of them don't make any money, and for every one that succeeds, there are probably 100 just like it that never saw the light of day."

Part of the pitch for Tribune Publishing is that it's already established, already doing what the upstarts aspire to, and what it can't yet do or hasn't mastered, it can grow into. Not content to be a paper tiger, it looks to be a new media lion.

Peter Liguori, the TV executive who took the reins as Tribune Co.'s chief executive after its emergence from restructuring, orchestrated the split. Although he voiced support for the publishing division, he never introduced a grand strategy to unlock the newspapers' value on par with his plans to reinvent cable channel WGN America and empower the TV station group through acquisitions.

Griffin came aboard four months ago, taking on the challenge after a large role in guiding Meredith Corp. into the digital age, a brief but transformative hitch as CEO of Time Inc. (which since has been spun from Time Warner), and the founding of Empirical Media, which advised Tribune Co. on the way out of its lengthy bankruptcy.

Beyond acknowledging the obvious need for top-line revenue growth and managing costs while remaining open to possible investments, Griffin has kept his specific plans close to the vest in the run-up to the split.

"The opportunity going forward," Griffin said, "is to develop these (Tribune Publishing) brands in ways that are traditional, in ways that are developing and in ways that are brand new."

The benefits of the break from broadcasting, Griffin said, include more focused management that no longer forces the publishing properties to fight within the company for attention and capital, and the removal of cross-ownership barriers that would have thwarted the acquisition of properties where Tribune Co. owned or wanted TV stations.

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