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April 29, 2017

Now at (Fire) Sale Prices: A Few Daily Newspapers...and Maybe More

The deep freeze in the U.S. newspaper market thawed a bit over the last couple of weeks. There really hasn’t been much of a market for metro newspapers for almost half a decade. With advertising revenue down now 21 quarters in a row, it’s near-impossible to fix a value on newspaper properties. For valuation, we’d need some high likelihood of stable profitability for the next several years, and that’s not in the cards.

So what do we make of the three recently announced sales? In each case, there’s a strong, willful buyer, bucking conventional business sense to bull ahead into 2012.

In Omaha, we’ve got Warren Buffett, the man who said just two years ago: “For most newspapers in the United States, we would not buy them at any price. They have the possibility of nearly unending losses. … I do not see anything on the horizon that sees that erosion coming to an end.” Unfortunately, the owner of the Buffalo News, investor in and long-time (now retired) board member of the Washington Post Company, is right. The erosion was deepest — almost 20% in the depth of the recession — but the bleeding in higher single digits has continued since then and it will continue into 2012. The U.S. industry is literally half the size, in revenue, that it was five years ago.

So is the Oracle of Omaha’s vision now blurred? Doubt it.

Buffett is an American hero, generously giving away more than half his fortune through the Gates Foundation and making the common sense point that those Americans who are among our wealthiest can, and should, afford to help out their countrymen in the time of great distress (witness just today’s New York Times’ story on the intense, and long-lasting, pain of permanent unemployment). His company, Berkshire Hathaway, is buying out the employee-owned Omaha World-Herald for $200 million, including debt assumption. Why? Warren Buffett understands the link between news and democracy, especially in his home state of Nebraska, where the paper sets a lot of the agenda with its coverage. You’ve got to believe that the World-Herald’s management, facing the same dismal picture as all metro publishers, looked for the whitest knight around, and turned to Buffett.

In Chicago, a buyout group led by two business leaders,  Michael Ferro Jr.and  John Canning Jr., is in talks to buy the Sun-Times group, which bought the paper out of bankruptcy (alas, Chicago doesn’t win the prize for city with most bankrupt dailies; that goes to L.A., which has had three) two years ago.  The reported price: $11 million plus assumption of debt. Both Ferro and Canning have been deeply involved with the Chicago News Cooperative, former Trib and L.A. Times editor Jim O’Shea’s effort to provide independent, high-quality news in Chicago.

Meanwhile, last week, the San Diego Union-Tribune’s most recent sale (we need flow charts to follow the now-rapid movement of some properties) was announced. Local businessman and developer Doug Manchester are buying the paper, and its underlying real estate, for about $110 million from Platinum Equity (“San Diego’s Union Tribune: Out of the Private Equity Pot and Into Local Political Fire“). John Lynch, the CEO-to-be once the sale closes, wasted no time in laying out the paper’s quasi-journalistic instincts:

“Lynch said he wants the paper to be pro-business. The sports page to be pro-Chargers stadium. And reporters to become stars.

“It’s news information, but it’s also show biz,” Lynch said. “You get people to tune in and read your site or the paper when there’s an ‘Oh wow’ in the paper.”

He wants that sports page to be an advocate for a new football stadium “and call out those who don’t as obstructionists.”

“To my way of thinking,” Lynch said, “that’s a shovel-ready job for thousands…”

“We’d like to be a cheerleader for all that’s good about San Diego,” Lynch said. “Our motivation, both of us, was to do something good for San Diego.”

Expect the newest U-T to support the new owner’s business and (conservative) political interests, and do so with relative national impunity. When Sam Zell talked about bringing some pizzaz to the Tribune, he won lots of coverage. But that was the Tribune, with a half-dozen substantial metros. This is San Diego, though the second-largest city in our largest state, off in a corner of the country far away from media watchers.

Reporters with whom I’ve talked rightly ask if these three deals in the making are a trend. Yes, of sorts, we’d have to say.

First, let’s consider how little money is changing hands in these deals. We could say that Warren Buffett’s $200 million offer is generous; that’s almost twice what the San Diego quasi-monopoly daily is selling for. If someone had told you 10 years ago that the World-Herald would sell for twice the Union-Tribune, you would have laughed them out of the room. U-T owner Helen Copley was courted by the royalty of Old Guard ownership, from Knight-Ridder and Tribune among others, letting her know they were ready to open their wallets to the tune of well over $500 million when the will to sell struck her. It never did and when she died, her family sold, to pay taxes and in panic, in the depth of the recession to Platinum Equity, which swooped in and is now making some decent profit ($80 million+) on the deal.

Important to the trend/no-trend question is price. These are fire-sale prices, mere pocket change to the 1%. So for reasons of altruism, preserving local voice and journalism or bolstering one’s own personal or business agenda, the price is right.

Given that, will we see more sales to motivated, individual (yes, we know Berkshire Hathaway bought the World Herald, not Buffett, but we also know who made the decision) buyers? Probably.

If and when the squabbling Tribune debtholders and bondholders ever release the hostage company out of bankruptcy, several Tribune cities have would-be owners queued up, if management wants to sell. When will the new Digital First get its properties in sufficient financial order, so that owner Alden Global Capital can begin to make its exit? At what point do companies like Gannett, Gatehouse and CNHI start to let it be known that individual properties may be bought? That’s an unknowable question at this point, but with ad revenue headed further down next year, selling something to somebody — it is appears there are buyers here and there — becomes a more intriguing option.

Interestingly, we’ve heard little from would-be “community trust” buyer groups. There was much talk of community-oriented, non-profits, with some support from the Newspaper Guild, a couple of years ago. Maybe, it’s fatigue, felt by everyone in and around the business, save apparently a few bright-eyed businessmen. In the tumult of the last two years, the voices have gotten quiet. The intriguing start-up models of MinnPost, Texas Tribune, Voice of San Diego, CNC and Bay Citizen don’t seem to have ignited a wildfire of imitation across the country. Only AOL — with HuffPost city sites announcing rapidly and Patch outposts in place — seems to making a substantial local play.

It’s an odd environment out there, with all kinds of characters still to come out of the woodwork.

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