On Monday, MNG Enterprises — better known as Digital First Media — renewed what looked to be a cooling wave of industry M&A by making a $1.4 billion overture for newspaper company Gannett (NYSE:GCI), publisher of USA Today.
The never-ending march of the internet continues to change the landscape of the newspaper and media business, chipping away at bottom lines and forcing survivors to consider options that wouldn’t have been considered just a few years prior. Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) CEO Jeff Bezos now owns the Washington Post. Tribune (formerly Tronc) was targeted last year by the investor that had just acquired The Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune.
Indeed, some are surprised the industry is still as fragmented as it is.
Alden Global subsidiary Digital First Media continues to capitalize on the opportunity, adding publications to a roster of more than 100 newspapers and then cutting and sharing expenses.
Though Gannett has yet to respond to, or comment on, the offer, it’s a development that may well trigger fresh acquisition interest within the publishing and media industry. And while owning a particular stock solely because it may be a buyout target is a usually poor strategy, there’s no denying a handful of media and publishing stocks just became a bit more valuable because of their buyout potential.
Note, however, that not all of the most plausible acquisition targets are pure newspaper names, reflecting radical changes in how consumers digest information and entertainment.
Daily Journal (DJCO)
It’s surprising that Daily Journal (NASDAQ:DJCO) hasn’t already been nabbed up and made part of a bigger media empire, for a handful of reasons.
One of them is its affordability. For just a little over $300 million a suitor could step into 10 different newspapers that are reliably profitable but could use the advantage of shared resources with a bigger partner.
Another reason is the company’s geographical focus. All of its target markets are in California, which would make for an easy bolt-on property for one of the state’s existing newspaper groups. For instance, Patrick Soon-Shiong — a major shareholder of newspaper group Tribune — was the buyer of The Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune, pointing to interest in aggregating newspaper operations in nearby markets.
CBS Corporation (CBS)
CBS Corporation (NYSE:CBS) has been aiming to acquire rival Viacom (NASDAQ:VIA, NASDAQ:VIAB) … a deal that’s more likely to be done now that CBS CEO Les Moonves is out. But, there’s just as much of a chance CBS could be the buyee before it’s able to be the buyer.
Like Daily Journal, CBS would be a reasonably affordable option for an outfit that perhaps wanted to get into the video content business. The company’s certainly got some valuable assets to that end. Not only does CBS has rights to air some NFL games, but it has got long-standing staples of U.S. television like “60 Minutes” in its stable of programming. Add Showtime to that list, plus CBS All Access … an over-the-top-television venue that’s gaining some traction, leveraging a rebooted Star Trek series.
The catch? For regulatory reasons, neither foreign organizations nor owners of rival networks would be allowed to own CBS. It would have to be a company that’s not directly in the same business.
Meredith Corporation (MDP)
Meredith Corporation (NYSE:MDP) may not be a household name, but its publications are. This is the company behind magazines like Time, Sports Illustrated, People, In Style and more. It also owns several TV channels and, of course, websites that correspond with many of its magazines.
It would be a nice addition for a semi-related players to garner exposure to the print world with some of the industry’s most recognizable publications; a suitor would also enjoy exposure to localized television viewers at a scale that matters.
That’s not the core reason Meredith is one of a handful of publishing stocks that could soon be snatched up, however. The underlying reason is, Meredith has already demonstrated it’s willing to buy, sell and deal as way of optimizing its enterprise. Case in point: Just a few months after buying Time magazine in late 2017, it was rumored to be mulling a sale of it along with Sports Illustrated.
If it’s distressed, the company may tacitly be holding itself out for sale to a buyer better positioned to leverage its brands.
E. W. Scripps (SSP)
E. W. Scripps (NASDAQ:SSP) has been pegged as a buyout target for years now, but little on that front has ever transpired. That, however, could be about to change.
Though started as a newspaper group decades ago, E. W. Scripps got entirely out of that business — via a sale to the aforementioned Gannett — to focus entirely on television. Now it owns 36 television stations and operates a handful of nationally syndicated networks viewable via traditional cable television or online.
Scripps isn’t afraid to reconfigure itself. The move out of the newspaper business and the spinoff of Scripps Network Interactive verifies that idea. The challenge has been the restriction on how the heirs to the company can sell their stakes, even if they chose to do so. More than 90% of the company’s shareholder voting power is controlled by the Scripps family, which traditionally has been compelled to keep the business within the family.
As time passes, though, the family is experiencing more and more pushback from activist investors like Mario Gabelli, who makes an increasingly convincing argument that the company can’t continue on as-is.
New Media Investment Group (NEWM)
In some regards, New Media Investment Group (NYSE:NEWM) is a prototype for the future of the printed newspaper.
The days of the standalone newspaper are gone. They simply can’t compete with the web on their own, particularly when aiming to create enough interesting content to produce a daily publication. Local or regional news is labor intensive, and too expensive if costs can’t be shared. New Media Investment Group tackles that problem head-on, having aggregated 145 localized daily newspapers and 325 more surprisingly viable weekly newspapers. It also publishes so-called “Shoppers” that promote local businesses.
Yet, the company knows that a newspaper in and of itself isn’t enough. The key to a successful publishing business is rounding that product out with an online service that further helps local business connect with consumers through the internet. ThriveHive is that vehicle.
More than that, though, New Media Investment Group is able to turn a consistent (even if less-than-thrilling) profit.
S&P Global (SPGI)
You’ll know S&P Global (NYSE:SPGI) better as Standard & Poor’s.
Contrary to popular belief, Standard & Poor’s is more than just market indices and basic research on publicly traded companies. S&P Global is a full-blown provider of data and written insight on market-related matters.
Granted, its target audience isn’t the average newspaper reader or television viewer — it’s the people who often discuss equity markets and the economy with consumers and investors. Information is power, though, and those people are willing to pay a premium for the information that allows them to position themselves as an expert.
It would take a highly specialized buyer to successfully use S&P Global’s unique platform and create synergy with it. But as vertical and horizontal dividing lines are blurred, it’s not a stretch to suggest someone could want to plug into the well-established and profitable brand name.
Finally, add Cision (NYSE:CISN) to your list of publishing stocks that may end up being acquired if the Gannett deal kicks off a deal-making race.
Cision may ring a bell as a distributor of press releases, though that’s far from all it does. Indeed, that’s only a superficial piece of its platform. While investors and consumers may merely be reviewing a news release, Cision is turning each and every one of those views into information that can be packaged and sold to client companies. Better still, the company’s platform lets client companies measure the impact of their publicity efforts.
It’s not quite “media” in the traditional sense of the word, but as has been mentioned, the lines between entertainment and news have been erased. Press releases and third-party commentaries become part of a bigger online identity, all of which has to be managed.
Analysts, even if not investors, are starting to see the value of such a service and valuing CISN stock richly as a result. Citi analyst Tyler Radke commented last year “We also see a call option on a critical trend in digital marketing — the shift to ‘earned’ media, which is tracking and measuring the impact of bloggers, social influencers, etc. This is not in the numbers and we believe modest success here could support a $29 bull case.”
The next step is a publishing giant recognizing the potential of these tools when combined with more traditional media and publishing options.
As of this writing, James Brumley did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. You can follow him on Twitter, at @jbrumley.