Moguls Purchase Papers for Prestige Above Profit

Bancrofts Agree to Meet Murdoch; News Business Drifts Back to the Barons

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NEW YORK ( -- Remember those bygone days when newspapers were owned by press barons, big names on the local or national stage, whose investment in the printed word was at least as much about their egos or their desire for influence as it was about profit? The bygone days are back.
Press Barons like Rupert Murdoch are back in vogue.
Press Barons like Rupert Murdoch are back in vogue. Credit: Nancy Kaszerman

The newspaper-oriented families and corporations we were just getting used to -- the ones who reaped the rewards of the print-a-profit 1980s and early '90s -- are losing their nerve, power, or both. They are being replaced by moguls (of various sizes) such as Rupert Murdoch, who last week made a big leap forward in his wooing of the Bancroft family; Sam Zell, who was able to cut a deal for Tribune Co. once the Chandlers put it in play; Brian Tierney, who bought the Philadelphia Inquirer; and David Geffen and Ron Burkle, who each seem to want the Los Angeles Times.

Mr. Murdoch, the latest and greatest in the fray, likely wants Dow Jones less for its existing revenue streams than for the prestige and influence its primary brand, The Wall Street Journal, could impart -- both to his other businesses and to himself.

Bancroft shift
And it's suddenly apparent the Bancrofts aren't sure Dow Jones can thrive on its own. "After a detailed review of the business of Dow Jones and the evolving competitive environment in which it operates," they said last Thursday, "the family has reached consensus that the mission of Dow Jones may be better accomplished in combination or collaboration with another organization, which may include News Corporation."

But the "competitive environment" hasn't changed much since a month ago, when a Bancroft bloc said it had enough votes to reject Mr. Murdoch's $5 billion offer. So why relent and agree to a sit-down? They may have been helped along by Brian Rogers, chief investment officer and chairman of Dow Jones' biggest shareholder, T. Rowe Price, who asked: "What's so bad about Rupert Murdoch anyway?" But maybe it was also the growing prospect of seeing Mr. Murdoch's offer evaporate -- twinned with a growing realization that he was really offering to buy the Bancrofts out of their anxiety over the future.

"Murdoch's perspective on this is very, very different than the Bancrofts', and this has been a wake-up call for them," said media and entertainment consultant Peter Kreisky.

Robert Willis, whose Willis Investment Counsel owns about 100,000 shares in Dow Jones, pointed out that some family members depend largely on company dividends for income. "When you have a company where the discretionary cash flow has declined for three years in a row," he said, "you have to wonder how long this dividend will continue."

Australian accents
Last Friday a few Dow Jones employees started answering their phones with Australian accents, an homage to Mr. Murdoch and the suddenly invigorated prospect of a sale.

It is not, however, a done deal. Last week the family also said it would consider any offers or proposals from other comers, setting the stage for Mr. Murdoch to raise his bid and for interlopers to come try their own luck. Rival contenders that have been suggested include high-net-worth individuals such as Maurice Greenberg -- but also Bloomberg, General Electric, Hearst, Pearson and Yahoo. With Dow Jones' share price exceeding $60 last week, more than Mr. Murdoch's offer, it seems anyone the Bancrofts make a deal with will have to offer more than $5 billion.

It will also be crucial for the Bancrofts to be satisfied that the Journal would remain free of Mr. Murdoch's influence -- or at least gather enough ammunition to counter his critics.
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