Take it from a smart rank-and-file editor at The Times: "I make nothing of it," he said.
Breaking the Ochs-Sulzberger grip
And what is "it"? The New York Post reported Nov. 29 that Maurice R. "Hank" Greenberg, the billionaire former head of AIG, has bought "hundreds of thousands of Times shares" with the intent of breaking the Ochs-Sulzberger family control. Then again, the family owns most of the shares that matter, the controlling Class B shares, so no amount of Class A stock would empower anyone to snap the family's grip.
Later in the day, CNBC reported anyway that Mr. Greenberg didn't just want to influence the Times Co. -- he wanted to own it. "From what I understand, Hank Greenberg is actively engaged in trying to buy the entire New York Times Co.," its reporter said. Then he added: "Now, investment bankers have told him it would be next to impossible, if not impossible, because let's face it, The New York Times has two classes of shares."
Next, a representative for Mr. Greenberg said the boss owned less than 100,000 of the 143 million shares outstanding. "He has no present intention of significantly increasing his holding," he said.
And a Times spokeswoman told Advertising Age and anyone who would listen that the "Ochs-Sulzberger family has no intention of changing the dual class structure. It's a moot point."
Newsroom's grim pastime
Unlike Walter Mitty, the James Thurber character who day-dreamed of adventures while running a plain errand, The Times Co. at least knows from drama. Even two years ago, some Times reporters made a grim pastime of visiting a newsroom Bloomberg terminal to gauge the stock's latest decline. More than loyalists, many of them have retirement plans tied up in the company shares.
More recently, big shareholder Morgan Stanley Investment Management started agitating for an end to the dual-stock system. Citigroup on Nov. 28 downgraded the stock to "sell."
The stock price probably distresses the family as much as it does Wall Street and the employees holding stock, the Times editor said. But still -- give up control? "The biggest problem is it's got to be in the best interests of the family to do this," he said. "So why would they do it? They got a lot of money from the dividends. The family seems to have no desire to change that."
Sure, changes could come. The company might go ahead and unload The Boston Globe at some point, although it's said it won't. When Arthur O. "Punch" Sulzberger Sr. dies, younger family members may begin thinking of their options more broadly.
Going the private route?
BusinessWeek's Tom Lowry and Jon Fine reported another angle on Nov. 30, that Chairman-Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. has talked over the idea of taking the company private with his good friend, investment banker Steve Rattner. At least that would spare us all this stockholder sturm and drang.
But that Times editor doesn't see daylight there, either. "If they go private, that's taking on a lot of debt," he said. "And whoever backs them is going to want the payout maybe five years later. So what do you gain? Do you take the company public again?"