Landmark could sell off media


Published: Friday, January 4, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 4, 2008 at 12:00 a.m.

NORFOLK, Va. - The owners of Williston-based Gator Bait magazine and newspapers in Williston, Chiefland and Cedar Key are exploring a sale of the company's businesses, which include The Weather Channel and nine daily newspapers.

The family that owns Norfolk, Va.-based Landmark Communications has retained JPMorgan and Lehman Brothers to help it look into possible sale scenarios, Frank Batten Jr., chairman and CEO, said in a statement Thursday.

The company's holdings include Landmark Community Newspapers Inc., with 50 newspapers in small towns in 15 states, including the Williston Pioneer Sun News, the Chiefland Citizen and Cedar Key Beacon. It also owns Gator Bait.

The local publications referred calls to corporate headquarters.

"At this early stage, we cannot speculate on where this process will lead," said Batten, whose father helped build the company after taking over as publisher of the local newspaper in 1954.

Landmark's vice chairman, Richard F. Barry III, said Batten would have no further comment, except to the Norfolk-based Virginian-Pilot, Landmark's flagship newspaper.

In an interview, Barry declined to say why a sale was being considered.

"This will all come out as this thing unfolds," Barry told The Associated Press. "This is day one of a multi-month process."

Barry said he did not know how much Landmark could make by selling its largest asset, The Weather Channel.

The New York Times reported Thursday that The Weather Channel could fetch more than $5 billion and is attracting interest from several parties, including General Electric Co.'s NBC Universal, News Corp. and the cable TV company Comcast Corp. The Times cited unidentified people briefed on the matter.

Several other media companies have also been sold recently, including Wall Street Journal publisher Dow Jones & Co., which was bought by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. for $5 billion. Real estate magnate Sam Zell recently took control of the newly private Tribune Co., which owns nine daily newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, and 23 television stations.

The Weather Channel's Web site, Weather.com, had more than 32 million unique users in November and ranks as the nation's 18th-largest media site by traffic, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.

Debora J. Wilson, The Weather Channel's chief executive, told The New York Times in June: "Every media conglomeration has approached Landmark, and there's never been a yes. We actually think that we're stronger being independent."

The company, which had $1.75 billion in sales in 2006, employs about 12,000, according to Hoover's, a business reference service.

It is parent to nine daily papers, including The Roanoke Times in Virginia and The News & Record of Greensboro, N.C., and more than 100 nondaily newspapers and specialty publications.

"While I am saddened about this development, I understand and agree with the business reasons for exploring these options," Bruce Bradley, publisher of The Pilot and a Landmark employee for 34 years, told The Virginian-Pilot. Bradley's secretary said Thursday that he would have no additional comment.

In addition to The Weather Channel and its Web site, Landmark owns television stations in Las Vegas and Nashville, Tenn., and Norfolk-based Dominion Enterprises, a national chain of classified-ad publications.

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