Tribune Publishing said Thursday it placed the winning bid at an auction of the Southern California suburban newspapers owned by bankrupt Freedom Communications.
The company said it agreed to pay $56 million for the business of Freedom, the Orange County Register and the Press-Enterprise. Freedom declared bankruptcy in November, just three years after the Register embarked on an aggressive expansion of print journalism that included starting a Los Angeles spinoff and the $27 million purchase of the Riverside-based Press-Enterprise.
A judge still must approve the sale and has scheduled a hearing in federal bankruptcy court for Monday.
Digital First Media and Tribune Publishing both sought to buy the newspapers to extend their reach in Southern California, while Freedom managers and local investors also sought to buy the papers, arguing for the need to retain local control.
"The successful bid for the business of Freedom Communications will allow the Orange County Register and the Press-Enterprise to continue providing a distinct local voice in their communities and deliver premium news and information to consumers across Southern California," Justin Dearborn, CEO of Tribune Publishing, said in a statement.
Both Digital First and Tribune saw the papers as a way to expand their territory in suburban Southern California and seek cost savings.
Digital First, which owns nine Southern California newspapers and websites including the Los Angeles Daily News, submitted a stalking horse bid of $45.5 million for the newspapers that did not include assumption of Freedom's pension obligations.
That bid was contested by Tribune, which publishes the Los Angeles Times and the Union-Tribune in San Diego.
The Justice Department, however, earlier this week warned that a purchase by Tribune could violate antitrust laws since it would give the company a string of papers from Los Angeles to the border with Mexico.
In addition, an investor group led by Freedom chief executive Rich Mirman and real estate investor Mike Harrah also sought to buy the papers. A coalition of Orange County business and community leaders backed their bid and asked the judge to prevent Los Angeles-based groups from assuming control over news coverage for the county of 3 million people.
The Associated Press is among the creditors in Freedom's bankruptcy proceedings.