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Jan. 28, 2019, 11:10 a.m.
LINK: nypost.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Christine Schmidt   |   January 28, 2019

After attempting a hostile takeover of Gannett, vulture fund Alden Global Capital is reportedly trying to offload its Digital First Media group…to Gannett, the New York Post first reported on Saturday. This whiplash apparently comes from the company’s lack of actual funds to absorb Gannett and its apparent desperation to sell off its investment, according to the Post’s sources:

Last week, MNG, better known as Digital First Media, sent shudders through the media industry with a $1.4 billion hostile takeover bid for Gannett, the company that owns 100 newspapers nationwide, including USA Today.

But many insiders are skeptical whether MNG’s owner, Alden Global Capital, can raise the money it needs to make good on its Jan. 14 offer to buy Gannett for $12 a share, a 23-percent premium to Gannett’s stock price a day earlier.

“Buying Gannett is a tall task…I’m not sure Alden can get the financing to buy Gannett,” a media banker told The Post.

In fact, sources say that MNG’s ambition for years has been to be acquired by Gannett — and some speculate that friendly talks have already begun. MNG currently has no plans to nominate directors to Gannett’s board, according to a source. The deadline for doing so is Feb. 7.

To refresh: Alden Global Capital is the hedge fund that owns Digital First Media which has slashed its 100-ish local dailies and weeklies to return advertising profits to the top. Gannett is the U.S.’s largest daily newspaper company, as Ken Doctor described two weeks ago when Alden made its move:

How did Gannett get to this point?

It was long prized by Wall Street as the daily newspaper company with the best capital structure and most consistent financial performance. It led of the last wave of consolidation in the industry, pre-web, buying up dozens of family-owned newspapers around the country. (Investors liked that — journalists, not so much.)

But Gannett, like its peers, began to show its cracks over the past decade. It announced one new transformation initiative after another — in newsrooms, in ad sales, and more lately in digital subscription sales — but Gannett has never been able to turn the digital corner.

Its digital businesses now contribute 37 percent of total revenues — more than most of its peers. But the company was still down around 7 percent in overall revenue through the first three quarters of 2018. Gannett’s print ad revenue was down about 17 percent over that span. Amid it all, Gannett’s journalists, even as their ranks have thinned, have won plaudits from readers (and peers) for reinvigorated national/local investigative projects.

We’ve seen throughout Alden’s methodological strip-mining of local newsrooms that — as is one of the core problems of the media industry today — many profiteers don’t flinch at slicing the public service these newsrooms perform. Doctor reported in May that Digital First Media was seeing a 17 percent operating margin with profits of almost $160 million, the highest margin among major newspaper chains.

While one doesn’t look to a company like Alden for consistency, it would nonetheless be more than a little hilarious if all its bluster about how terrible Gannett was at running its newspapers ended with a meek “Hey, sorry about that — do you want to run our papers too?” (To refresh your memory, Alden said just two weeks ago that “the team leading Gannett has not demonstrated that it’s capable of effectively running this enterprise,” blamed it “a series of value-destroying decisions made by an unfocused leadership team,” and said Gannett could not “address its operational and strategic issues as a public company.”)

As noble and important as the protests by its newsrooms (and former journalists who have left in disgust) and readers are, I don’t think picket signs are nudging Alden into trying to wash its hands of this business. Three years after entering the newspaper industry Alden began exploring “strategic options” to sell DFM. And what would Gannett gain from the newsrooms rendered skeletons by Alden’s deep cuts, as it already is trying to keep its own newsrooms afloat, aside from more scale and more synergies?

Back-and-forths are part of the Consolidation Games emerging as 2019’s theme, with McClatchy and Tribune Publishing playing footsie as well. Gannett would still be a healthier home for local news than Digital First, but its own problems created the entryway for Alden to go on the attack.

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