As Newspapers Sell Out, The New York Times Is Last Man Standing

What big city daily is not for sale, or has been sold already? The New York Times Company (NYSE: NYT) has not parted with its flagship. However, the company probably would get very little for it, compared to the power of its history and brand, and what it was valued for a decade ago. It is perhaps worth $500 million today. Perhaps even less.

The Washington Post Company (NYSE: WPO) sold its flagship newspaper for an unimaginably low $250 million. Its stewards, the Graham family, threw away a paper run by current CEO Don Graham’s grandfather, father and mother. It is within the memory of most middle-aged Americans that The Washington Post rivaled The New York Times for the title of “best newspaper in America.”

As if the newspaper industry had not been beaten up enough, the Post was purchased by Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN) founder Jeff Bezos, who may never have stepped a foot inside an actual newspaper office. Truly, just hours before, the New York Times Company sold the Boston Globe to a hedge fund manager named John Henry, who may only read papers on a Kindle, for $70 million.

The final set of great American daily papers that can be bought for a song are those owned the Tribune Company, which recently exited bankruptcy. As a matter of fact, the company has been structured so that it is easy to unload the papers. The Tribune board wants to keep prized TV properties. The papers can go. Among them are the largest newspapers in America: the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Baltimore Sun — once home to likely the greatest newspaper columnist in U.S. history, H. L. Menken.

Based on the prices paid for the Boston Globe and Washington Post, the LA Times and Chicago Tribune cannot be worth more than $200 million each. It may be much less if there is not a hedge fund owner or billionaire who wants to have a hobby of defending the old standards of journalism.

The New York Times is much bigger than the Post. In the second quarter, newspaper revenue at the Washington Post Company was $138 million, on which it lost $14 million. The Times division of the New York Times Company had revenue of $391 million in the second quarter, and the New England Media Group — mostly the Globe — had revenue of $94 million. While there is no sense in directly relating the value of the Times to either the Post or the Globe, it is hard to see how a buyer would value the Times much above half a billion. Like other papers, it cannot grow, as digital revenue fails to completely fill the hole left by print. Of course, there is always that one buyer, like Bezos, who is willing to pay extra for the trophy.

The Times is all that is left among the truly independent large dailies — those owned and run by newspaper people. If the recent trend means anything, it is that the Times’ days as a newspaperman’s paper are nearly over.

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