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A financial makeover for Tribune employees

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KAI RYSSDAL: Just like that, the country has a new media tycoon. Sam Zell made his billions in real estate. As of today, he’s the new owner of the Tribune Company. It’s an empire that includes eleven daily newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. As well as the Chicago Cubs, 23 television stations and 20,000 employees. The deal is valued at about $8 billion. Though Zell’s only going to put up about 315 million from of his own pocket. Marketplace’s Jeff Tyler, it’s the deal’s financing that’s making those 20,000 employee’s a little uptight.

JEFF TYLER: The new company will be private instead of public. And employees will become part-owners, under an employee stock ownership plan – known as an ESOP.

If the company thrives, workers will share in the profits. But if the company goes bust, workers could be left in what one Tribune employee describes as “Enron territory.”

Michael Keeling, president of the ESOP Association, points to some positive statistics.

MICHAEL KEELING: ESOPS are 15 percent more likely than their competitors to survive over a decade. A state of Washington study, state of Ohio study, they were more likely to pay higher current wages than non-ESOP companies.

Despite the potential upside, Tribune employees are nervous. In part because the company will take on a lot of debt.

Thomas Mulligan is a financial reporter for the Tribune-owned Los Angeles Times.

THOMAS MULLIGAN: I think people are attracted by the idea of becoming larger owners in their own company, and in that way determining its fate. But also, they realize that the risk of insolvency rises with a great deal of new debt.

Starting next year, employee retirement contributions will be paid in part with company stock. But even with the risks, Mulligan says the newspapers must get entrepreneurial if they are to survive.

MULLIGAN: Sometimes that can be better done as a private enterprise than as a public one, where you’re sometimes subject to short-term thinking on the part of Wall Street.

So the Tribune will trade Wall Street pressures for an increased debt. Meanwhile, employees cross their fingers and hope that debt doesn’t translate into cut-backs and lay-offs.

I’m Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.

RYSSDAL: One more thing to add about the Tribune sale. CEO Dennis FitzSimons said today he’d really love for the Cubs to win it all this year. The team’s going to be sold off at the end of the season to pay down Tribune’s debt. Of course the cubbies got shlacked today by the Indians 12-5.

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