Well, not exactly.
In another sign of the newspaper industry's vanishing, if not vanished, economic value, Chicago-based Tronc Inc. will officially pay $1 to "buy" the money-losing Daily News. But it's more accurate to say Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman effectively gave the paper up for adoption, and paid Tronc to be its caretaker.
Tronc (an awkward shorthand for Tribune Online Content) will take over management of the Daily News and get half-ownership of the newspaper's most valuable asset, a printing plant based on 25 acres of prime real estate in Jersey City, across the Hudson from the paper's home in Manhattan. In exchange, it will assume the News's annual losses and pension liabilities, freeing Zuckerman, 80, from the News's perpetual string of red ink and future employee obligations.
The 98-year-old Daily News was once a mighty voice of New York's working class, and a familiar accessory of straphanging commuters in the great metropolis. It had a peak circulation of 2.4 million in 1947, and a penchant for provoking outrage and amusement with its deep-black "wood" headlines (including its legendary five-word cri de coeur in 1975 after President Ford denied federal aid to the nearly bankrupt city: "Ford to City: Drop Dead"). Its tabloid rivalry with Rupert Murdoch's New York Post is steeped in newspaper lore and the stuff of Hollywood seriocomic mythmaking (see "The Paper").
But you know the rest of the story. The Internet long ago began blasting away at the advertising and readership foundation of newsmagazines and newspapers. The plummeting fortunes of both have been slowed but not arrested by the switch to digital news. Facebook and Google control much of the national and local ad market once dominated by all those Heralds and Tribunes and Chronicles.
The News's "sale" is the latest manifestation of these humbled balance sheets — "an indication of troubled times," as Rick Edmonds, the media-business analyst for the journalism-education organization Poynter Institute, put it on Tuesday. Of the News's decline and would-be rescue, he said, "We've seen this movie before."
In fact, there are many parallels. Bloomberg bought BusinessWeek from McGraw Hill in 2009 for pocket change and the assumption of its liabilities. Audio-equipment magnate Sidney Harman paid a symbolic dollar a year later to acquire Newsweek from The Washington Post Co. (Harman, who died in 2011, briefly merged the title with the Daily Beast before Newsweek was sold again in 2013).
Newspapers were once so profitable that they sold for billions as recently as a decade or so ago. These days, they're largely valued not on their journalistic enterprise and community connections but on the real estate their owners acquired decades or even a century earlier.
Like Zuckerman, a wealthy New York real estate investor, several newspaper owners have squeezed value out of declining newspaper operations by selling off their underlying properties. (When Amazon.com founder Jeffrey P. Bezos bought The Washington Post for $250 million in 2013, the paper's former parent company made almost as much from the later sale of its downtown headquarters building and Alexandria, newsprint warehouses as it did from selling The Post itself.)
Other owners have sold their papers outright, with the paper's real estate as a prime attraction to buyers.
In 2013, for example, the New York Times Co. sold the Boston Globe to Boston Red Sox owner John W. Henry for $70 million. The paper itself (which the Times had purchased in a $1.1 billion deal in 1993) was in effect a small part of the bargain; the Globe's headquarters had an estimated value of $63.8 million at the time.
Among others, Media General sold the Tampa Tribune to an investment company called Revolution Capital Group in 2012 for $9.5 million — essentially the value of the Tribune's aging riverfront office building. Despite vowing to stay and build ("We are definitely in this for the long haul. We don't flip businesses," Revolution's chief executive said at the time), the investment company sold the Tribune 43 months later to the owners of the rival Tampa Bay Times. The Times promptly shut the Tribune down.
The surprise deal for the Daily News brings Tronc full circle. Its predecessor company, the Chicago Tribune Co., started the paper in 1919 and owned it until 1991. Zuckerman acquired it in 1993 after a previous owner, British tabloid baron Robert Maxwell, fell off the back of his yacht and drowned.
The company, which also owns the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, says it intends to continue operating the Daily News, thus giving it a newspaper in each of the nation's three largest markets.
As a result, it will continue its long financial war of attrition with the New York Post. The Daily News has won some attention for its bold covers sassing candidate and President Trump; the Post tends to be more supportive of the longtime New York real estate magnate-turned-president.
Tronc's publicity-shy chairman, Michael Ferro, hasn't shown a willingness to use his papers for broad national political purposes, but "there's still some value in having a voice in a place like New York," Edmonds said, "even if the nuts and bolts of the business don't make a lot of sense."
Tronc's immediate game plan is to aggregate a national digital audience of sufficient size to attract national advertisers. In announcing its agreement with Zuckerman, it said it would have a "combined digital platform" with about 80 million unique monthly visitors, of which about 25 million come from the Daily News. This gives Tronc's newspapers (which include the Baltimore Sun and San Diego Union-Tribune) roughly the same scale as The Washington Post and New York Times.
Of course, if the Daily News continues to founder financially, Tronc will still have something to fall back on. There's a 25-acre parcel with prime views of Manhattan that could someday be home to more than a printing plant.