Swiss Billionaire Is a Top Bidder for the Tribune Newspapers
The Swiss billionaire Hansjorg Wyss helped build a sophisticated behind-the-scenes operation that attacked Republicans and promoted Democratic causes.,
WASHINGTON — Long before he emerged as a potential champion of journalism with his bid for Tribune Publishing, the Swiss billionaire Hansjorg Wyss quietly created a sophisticated political operation to advance progressive policy initiatives and the Democrats who support them.
The organization, called The Hub Project, was started in 2015 by one of Mr. Wyss’s charitable organizations, the Wyss Foundation, partly to shape media coverage to help Democratic causes. It now has 60 employees, according to its website, including political organizers, researchers and communications specialists. Mr. Wyss and his charitable foundation are not mentioned on The Hub Project’s website, and his role in its creation has not been previously reported.
Information about his involvement came from interviews with five people with knowledge of The Hub Project, an internal memo from another liberal group that was obtained by The New York Times, and the appearance of The Hub Project’s business plan in a tranche of data made public by WikiLeaks. According to U.S. officials, the data was stolen by Russian intelligence from the emails of John Podesta, who has been an adviser to Mr. Wyss and was a top aide to the former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
The Hub Project’s activities include organizing paid advertising campaigns that criticized Republican congressional candidates in 2018, as well as a series of marches in 2017 that called on then-President Donald J. Trump to release his tax returns. As The Hub Project’s website notes, it also developed a podcast last year, “Made to Fail,” hosted by the former Obama administration official and current CNN legal analyst Elliot Williams, that was critical of conservative policies.
As a newspaper publisher, Mr. Wyss (pronounced Veese) would be in a role very different from that of a behind-the-scenes backer of progressive causes. If he succeeds in his bid for Tribune Publishing, a chain that includes The Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and The Daily News, he could help shape news coverage for millions of readers.
In making this bid, Mr. Wyss teamed with Stewart W. Bainum Jr., a major donor to Democrats and the chairman of Choice Hotels, an international hotel chain. The pair emerged last week as the leading bidders after swooping in with an offer that was richer than an earlier bid from Alden Global Capital, a New York hedge fund that is Tribune’s largest shareholder.
Tribune had reached a nonbinding agreement with Alden in February, only to change course this month, when its special committee said the bid from Mr. Wyss, 85, and Mr. Bainum, 75, would lead to a “superior proposal.” Company shareholders are expected to approve a buyer this summer.
The entry of Mr. Wyss and Mr. Bainum, who served in the state legislature of his native Maryland decades ago, has been cheered by journalists at Tribune papers, union leaders and press advocates who have decried Alden’s strategy of slashing costs at the roughly 60 daily newspapers it controls. But the big-money activism of Mr. Wyss and Mr. Bainum highlights concerns that wealthy owners may try to influence news coverage to advance their political agendas.
When the conservative billionaire brothers Charles G. Koch and David H. Koch explored a bid in 2013 for eight Tribune newspapers, the effort prompted vigorous opposition from public employee unions, Democratic leaders and journalists. They predicted that the Kochs, who spent years funding conservative efforts, would use the papers to promote their politics.
“I don’t blame the folks who were concerned about what might happen if the Kochs bought the same newspaper chain,” said Scott Walter, the president of the conservative nonprofit watchdog group Capital Research Center, which tracks political spending by liberal groups and has received funding from Koch foundations. “Wyss’s bid should be equally concerning.”
Friends of Mr. Bainum, who has yet to comment publicly on his Tribune offer, have said he is interested in operating The Baltimore Sun through a nonprofit. Mr. Wyss said in an interview with The Times last month that he would be interested in overseeing The Chicago Tribune.
Ted Venetoulis, a former county executive in Baltimore and a friend of Mr. Bainum’s, said he believed Mr. Wyss and Mr. Bainum would not use Tribune papers to advance their views. “They look at a newspaper as a community service,” he said.
Howard H. Stevenson, a classmate of Mr. Wyss’s at Harvard Business School in the 1960s, who serves as an adviser to the Wyss Foundation, called Mr. Wyss “a believer in the free press,” and said he would not seek to infuse the papers’ journalism with his politics. “I’m not concerned about that,” he said, “because I think he believes enough in truth and balance.”
Mr. Bainum and Mr. Wyss declined to comment for this article.
Mr. Wyss, who was born in Bern, Switzerland, and has a home in Wyoming, first visited the United States as an exchange student in 1958 and worked as a journalist as a young man. A decade ago, as the chief executive of the Swiss-based medical device maker Synthes, he oversaw its sale to Johnson & Johnson for roughly $20 billion.
It is not clear if Mr. Wyss has U.S. citizenship. In a 2014 speech reported by the Swiss news outlet Blick, he said that he carried only a Swiss passport and did not have a U.S. green card. It is illegal for foreign nationals without green cards to contribute directly to U.S. political campaigns, but they are permitted to give to groups that seek to influence public policy.
Mr. Wyss, who has pledged to donate half his money to charity, has given hundreds of millions to environmental and conservation causes. Through his foundations, he has gradually increased his donations to groups that promote abortion rights, minimum wage increases and other progressive causes.
He became a member of the Democracy Alliance, a club of liberal donors, as well as the board of the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank that got its start with support from Democracy Alliance donors. The think tank and its sister political group have received more than $6.1 million from foundations linked to Mr. Wyss, according to tax filings.
Mr. Podesta, the founder of the Center for American Progress, has also advised the Wyss Foundation, including on the hiring of The Hub Project’s executive director, Arkadi Gerney, a former official at the Center for American Progress, according to people with knowledge of the arrangement.
The Hub Project came out of the idea that Democrats should be more effective in conveying their arguments through the news media and directly to voters. Its business plan, a 21-page document prepared for the Wyss Foundation in 2015, recommended that the group “be solely funded by the Wyss Foundation at the outset” and that it would work behind the scenes to “dramatically shift the public debate and policy positions of core decision makers.” The plan added that The Hub Project “is not intended to be the public face of campaigns.”
The Hub Project is part of an opaque network managed by a Washington consulting firm, Arabella Advisors, that has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars through a daisy chain of groups supporting Democrats and progressive causes. The system of political financing, which often obscures the identities of donors, is known as dark money, and Arabella’s network is a leading vehicle for it on the left.
The Arabella network has similarities to the operation created by the Kochs. Democrats have long criticized the Kochs and others who have engaged in the hard-to-track political spending unleashed in part by the Supreme Court’s decision in the 2010 Citizens United case.
The Arabella network’s money flows through four nonprofits that serve as parent structures for a range of groups, including The Hub Project. The nonprofits then pass some of the funds along to other nonprofit groups or super PACs.
The Hub Project is not a stand-alone organization for tax purposes, but is housed within two Arabella-managed nonprofits, New Venture Fund and the Sixteen Thirty Fund, which pay Hub Project employees.
Between 2007 and last year, the Wyss Foundation donated roughly $56.5 million to New Venture Fund, according to tax returns and voluntary disclosures. Among New Venture Fund’s beneficiaries was an ambitious nonprofit group, Acronym. Acronym partly owns Courier Newsroom, a network of news media outlets that was criticized by a nonpartisan disinformation watchdog for slanting coverage to favor Democrats.
Separate tax returns reveal that a nonprofit group linked to the Wyss Foundation, the Berger Action Fund — which has overlapping board members with the Wyss Foundation — donated more than $10.8 million in 2016 or 2017 to the Sixteen Thirty Fund.
Sixteen Thirty Fund’s beneficiaries included super PACs that promoted President Biden and attacked Mr. Trump, among them the scandal-plagued Lincoln Project and Unite the Country. Mr. Bainum donated $2 million to Unite the Country last year.
Officials from Arabella Advisors, The Hub Project, the Sixteen Thirty Fund and New Venture Fund did not respond to requests for comment. The Wyss Foundation, Berger Action Fund and The Hub Project did not respond to detailed questions about their finances.
Price Floyd, a spokesman for the Wyss Foundation and the Berger Action Fund, said in a statement that Mr. Wyss “is proud to support the great work the grantees do each and every day,” adding that the Wyss Foundation “has no role whatsoever in the pending acquisition” of Tribune Publishing.
The Wyss Foundation has donated to media organizations structured as nonprofit groups. One of them, States Newsroom, a group of news sites based in state capitals, received $1 million from the Wyss Foundation last year. NewsGuard, a media watchdog that analyzes the credibility of news outlets, concluded that State Newsroom’s journalism had been “bought by people with a political agenda.” (State Newsroom became an independent nonprofit group in late 2019, and began voluntarily disclosing its donors on its website.)
Jon Schleuss, the president of the NewsGuild union, which represents employees from Tribune as well as The Times and other outlets, said Mr. Wyss and Mr. Bainum could maintain journalistic integrity by establishing “a wall” between them and newsroom operations.
“A lot of newspaper publishers in the past have definitely been politically active and yet still produced phenomenal journalism,” he said.
Marc Tracy contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed research. Mark Landler contributed translation.