Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Barbarians at the Gray Lady's Gates

The year has not started well for the New York Times. While taking fire for the John McCain story, its family ownership is under siege from hedge funds that have now accumulated over 15 percent of the company's Class A shares.

Symbolically, the attackers are led by Scott Galloway, most often seen in a charity-ball photograph dressed as a blue-faced, sword-wielding Scottish rebel from the movie "Braveheart." But Galloway and his group are digital warriors who insist they don't want to overthrow the old order, just bring it into the 21st century.

In asking for four seats on Times Company board, they wrote that "we are not pursuing a change in the dual class shareholder structure. The New York Times is a great institution controlled by the Sulzberger family and we have no illusion about, or desire to change, that fact...

"We believe a renewed focus on the core assets and the redeployment of capital to expedite the acquisition of digital assets affords the greatest shareholder appreciation and creates the appropriate platform to compete in today’s media landscape."

For their $400 million investment so far, Galloway's invaders have received little encouragement. Their four nominees for the board have been rejected in favor of new Sulzberger choices including, significantly, a close associate of Warren Buffet's.

Nothing like a Rupert Murdoch takeover of the Wall Street Journal is on the horizon, but with 97 percent of its revenue coming from paper-based properties and stock prices falling, the Company is vulnerable to such criticism, as reported by the Washington Post, that "with a market capitalization of $2.8 billion, the single most valuable asset the Times Co. owns, some analysts say, is its new midtown Manhattan headquarters, which may be worth as much as $1 billion. Some have caustically remarked that the Times Co. is now a REIT--a real estate investment trust-- with a newspaper attached."

Amid denunciations of its McCain takeout from the Right and much of the Left, all this is a reminder that the New York Times is one of the few remaining media institutions still family-controlled and being nominally run as a public trust in a time when corporate ownership and "shareholder appreciation" are the rules of the game.

For those who have spent a lifetime in journalism, all this pressure on "the newspaper of record" is a sobering reminder that the old rules in most places are long gone.

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