Word swept through the Reading Eagle last Friday that newspaper baron and Pittsburgh Pirates owner Robert Nutting was touring the presses and offices, triggering speculation that his Ogden Newspapers could bid on the distressed 230-employee Pennsylvania newspaper.
Nutting could not be reached in several attempts to contact him at Ogden headquarters in Wheeling, W.Va. Among Ogden’s 12 Pennsylvania papers are the Altoona Mirror, Williamsport Sun-Gazette, and Warren Times Observer.
Eagle spokesperson Connie Andrews declined to comment, saying information on possible bidders was confidential.
Wednesday will be a big day in the reeling newspaper industry.
Potential buyers of the Eagle are expected at the law office of Stevens & Lee in Reading by 5 p.m., while Gannett Co. shareholders in McLean, Va., will vote in a hostile takeover battle with hedge fund-controlled MNG Enterprises Inc., which owns the Media News Group newspaper chain, also known as Digital First Media.
MNG, which is ultimately controlled by the New York-based Alden Global Capital, is seeking to put three members on the Gannett board.
Media News Group has a reputation for gutting newsroom staffs. The company, which owns the Pottstown Mercury, Norristown Times Herald, and other Philadelphia-area newspapers, could bid on the Eagle, staffers say.
The Eagle has set $5 million as the lowest acceptable bid for the publisher of a newspaper with a 50,000-copy Sunday print run. Qualified bidders will then participate in an auction on Friday, also at Stevens & Lee, only a few blocks from the Eagle.
The Friday auction will be canceled if there is only one qualified bidder, or none.
“I expect there to be more than one [bid], but you never know until you get them,” said Robert Lapowsky, the Stevens & Lee bankruptcy attorney who represents the Eagle.
The auction will be closed to the public and media, with only debtors and qualified bidders participating. Bidders will be able to boost their offers by $100,000 per round in Friday’s auction.
The Eagle filed for Chapter 11 protection in March and has sought an expedited sale with $2.1 million in 2019 losses through March 31, bankruptcy documents show.
The Reading Eagle Co. also owns local radio station WEEU, a Schuylkill County weekly, and a website with 3.2 million page views a month. The company lost $4 million on $28 million in revenue in 2018. It’s partly owned by two of the richest families in America, the Barbeys and DuPonts. Famed Rabbit, Run novelist John Updike got his first writing job at the paper.
Reporters, printers, advertising reps, and others fear for their jobs. The company last week laid off six employees, and said on Monday that “it is impossible to speculate whether there will be more cutbacks in the future.”
On April 30, state officials held two meetings with Eagle employees to discuss unemployment benefits.
Reading-area community groups are concerned about a degradation in news coverage.
“Because of upcoming changes in ownership of the Reading Eagle, the paper will likely not be doing preconcert write-ups or postconcert reviews any longer,” James Gilmer, cofounder of the Berks Sinfonietta, a chamber orchestra group, said in a Facebook post on April 27.
“There is an obvious impact on our work: Many of our audience rely on the local paper for information on upcoming concerts," Gilmer said.
Gilmer ended the post asking his readers to “please start a conversation with your networks. We’d love to hear your ideas as we connect with other local groups on this subject.”