Orange County Register facility shown shortly after construction 1986. File photo from archive.

Digital First Media said Saturday that Freedom Communications’ attorney will accept its offer for The Orange County Register and The Press-Enterprise. (File Photo)

By Jeff Collins and Jonathan Lansner
March 19, 2016 – Updated 10:50 p.m.

Attorneys for The Orange County Register’s owner filed a motion Saturday asking a bankruptcy judge to approve the company’s sale to Digital First Media, the second-highest bidder in last week’s newspaper auction.

he $56 million bid by Tribune Publishing, owner of the Los Angeles Times, can’t be accepted because an eleventh-hour antitrust court order prevents the company from closing the deal on time, Freedom Communications lawyer William Lobel said.

“We’re going to go in and ask the judge on Monday to approve (Digital First Media) as the successful bidder,” Lobel said.

Digital First Media is the nation’s second-largest newspaper company by circulation, with 65 daily and Sunday newspapers and at least 265 websites in 18 states. The company owns the Long Beach Press-Telegram, Los Angeles Daily News and seven other Southern California newspapers.

Freedom’s request will be considered at Monday’s 9 a.m. hearing before U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Mark Wallace in Santa Ana.

The judge presides over the bankruptcy of Freedom Communications, which owns the Register and The Press-Enterprise in Riverside and is embroiled in its second bankruptcy in seven years.

Wallace’s challenge changed late Friday when antitrust regulators won a key battle: U.S. District Court Judge Andre Birotte Jr. issued a temporary restraining order that halted Tribune’s purchase due to concerns that the deal may create a Southern California news monopoly.

It’s unclear if Tribune will try to fight; a hearing on the restraining order is set for March 28.

Monopoly concerns

“It may be that Tribune will lose the opportunity to acquire the Register and Press-Enterprise in favor of the second place bidder,” Birotte wrote. “However, this private harm does not outweigh the public interest in the preservation of competition, especially given the government’s likelihood of success on the merits.”

Lobel said the restraining order makes it unlikely Tribune will be able to close a sale by a March 31 dead-line.

“The Tribune cannot close, so what’s (Judge Wallace) going to say?” Lobel said Saturday.

Ron Hasse, president of the Digital First Media’s Los Angeles News Group, declined to comment until after Monday’s hearing.

Tribune Publishing spokesperson Hillary Manning concurred that the restraining order may block Tribune from buying Freedom.

“We believe the Antitrust Division continues to overlook the commercial realities of modern media in which Internet-delivered services are aggressively competing with the newspaper industry,” Manning said.

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