Will a California-based newspaper chain add The San Diego Union-Tribune to its empire? Not likely, analysts said.

In the past, the most ideal suitor might have been Lee Enterprises, which owns the Escondido-based North County Times, the only other mainstream daily newspaper in the county. The company could have tried to buy the U-T in order to merge the two papers.

But Lee Enterprises has seen its profits and stock price dive in recent months, and the company’s survival in its current form is in question. By one estimate, the company is worth just $145 million — less than the estimated value of the U-T.

Analysts said other unlikely buyers include Tribune (owner of the Los Angeles Times), Belo (The Press Enterprise in Riverside) and McClatchy (Sacramento Bee).

A month ago, the CEO of Belo told investors that the company had no interest in buying more newspapers, said Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst with Poynter Institute, a nonprofit school for journalists.

Tribune is undergoing major turmoil, cost-cutting and a sharp decline in employee morale. It also has major debt, Edmonds said.

McClatchy meanwhile, is deeply in debt.

The sprawling Gannett chain is one possibility as a buyer for the U-T, and it already owns a newspaper in Palm Springs. But the company typically pursues newspapers in markets that are much smaller than San Diego, said Edward Atorino, a media analyst at The Benchmark Company. “It would be out of their strategic focus.”

Another possibility is the E.W. Scripps chain, which owns the Ventura County Star. It’s struggling with weak ad revenue, he said, but has hardly any debt.

Poynter’s Edmonds raised a couple more possibilities — Freedom Communcations, the private company that owns The Orange County Register, and MediaNews, which has recently snapped up newspapers in Northern California.

However, “my own sense is that MediaNews has enough debt issues of its own to buy newspapers now,” Edmonds said.

— RANDY DOTINGA

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