The announcement this morning that Gannett has withdrawn its bid for Tronc prompts a big question: What it will do with the big kitty it had set aside for acquisitions?
The company wasn't saying, but recent transactions and earlier statements provide hints at where Gannett will turn its attention.
In last week's earnings call with analysts, executives said that the company has $170 million in cash on hand. Debt stands at a modest $268 million, and the company was poised to borrow much more than that to close the Tronc deal at nearly $1 billion.
During the call, CEO Bob Dickey reaffirmed his goal of scaling up a national footprint by buying more papers and their digital operations:
We remain committed to the strategy of building out our local footprint as well as the impact that has on our goal of being the largest digital news network under the USA Today Network banner. But it all comes down to making sure that these are accretive for our shareholders and add value and that the financing terms make sense for the company. We’re not just going to add properties for the sake of adding properties.
In earlier earnings calls, Dickey said a good target for Gannett would be 125 to 140 regional properties (it now has 109). He has indicated that he wants Gannett to be in more communities with populations ranging from 500,000 to 3 million.
That means smaller metros or the largest mid-sized papers. The North Jersey Media Group with its Bergen Record, acquired by Gannett in July, fits the profile. So would the Fayetteville Observer, sold weeks later to New Media Investment Group. Both had been family-owned for more than 100 years.
There are still plenty of such freestanding papers and small groups out there. Revenues and profits have become severely pinched this year. And the need to invest in upgrading content management systems and other technology is getting prohibitively expensive. So even longtime owners are forced to consider getting out of the news business.
Expect Gannett and competitor New Media to discover those opportunities as they arise and buy where there is a potential to cut costs while also building audience and advertising reach.
What's attractive out there? Block Communications of Toledo owns both the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and hometown Toledo Blade. Good papers, good markets — but I have no reason to think that after 115 years the family wants to sell.
Ditto The Seattle Times and the Charleston Post and Courier. Both are strong operations in hot markets, but the Blethen and Manigault families give every indication they want to stay in the game despite the dis-economies of smaller scale.
Theoretically, Gannett could now bid for a smaller public company. But such prospects as Lee, McClatchy and A.H. Belo all have committed family owners with a majority of the voting shares.
Gannett has other options as well. In June, it paid $156 million for ReachLocal, a California-based digital marketing services firm. And a month ago it picked up the sports vertical, Golfweek for an undisclosed price.
One little-reported detail during Gannett's six-month effort to buy Tronc is the huge expenditure of time necessary to put two companies that size together.
In last week's conference call, Gannett said that it is still completing the integration of Journal Communications, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and 14 former Scripps properties. That deal closed in April and had been agreed to in principle last October. Gannett is just starting on the same drill with the North Jersey Media Group.
So, a respite or slowing of the merger pace may be welcome with some difficult staff cuts just being implemented. But I would look for the Gannett acquisition train to get back on track before long.