154 daily newspapers changed hands in 2019

Feb 1, 2020

By Sara April
Dirks, Van Essen, Murray & April

Propelled by the merger of Gannett and New Media Investment Group, the nation’s No. 1 and No. 2 newspaper owners as measured by circulation, the newspaper industry set a new post-recession record for transaction dollar volume in 2019.

Newspaper deal activity broke through the $1 billion barrier for the first time since 2007 in what would have been an otherwise unremarkable year.
In total, 154 daily newspapers changed hands in 2019 in 30 separate transactions worth $1.33 billion. However, the Gannett/New Media deal accounted for large portions of the dailies sold and the dollar volume. Excluding that transaction, the totals would have been 44 dailies sold in deals worth approximately $134 million.

In 2018, annual transaction volume totaled $857.4 million, which had been the highest since 2008.

The merger of Gannett Co. and New Media Investment Group, the two largest newspaper owners in the U.S., was unprecedented on a number of fronts. The combined company, which retained the Gannett name, is the largest in the history of the industry in terms of dailies owned and print circulation relative to the entire universe of U.S. daily newspapers.

Although the value of the deal was not among the largest seen by the newspaper industry before 2008, it dwarfed other mega-mergers in terms of different industry metrics.

According to data maintained by Dirks, Van Essen, Murray & April, the new Gannett now owns:

• 20.4% of all U.S. daily newspapers
• 26.3% of all U.S. daily print circulation
• 24.8% of all U.S. Sunday print circulation

Setting that aside, the year was dominated primarily by the sale of operations with one daily newspaper. In fact, more than three-quarters of the 30 transactions fell into that category.

New Media, which was the acquiring company in the Gannett merger, also completed one of the few other deals involving more than one daily newspaper when it bought Schurz Communications’ 10 daily newspapers earlier in the year.

Even so, the buyer pool remained remarkably diverse in 2019. Indeed, there were 21 different buyers in the 30 deals involving daily newspapers.
Sellers were principally independent owners, although there were a few sales by group owners. Among the largest independently or family owned dailies sold in 2019 were the Reading (Pennsylvania) Eagle, Rochester (Minnesota) Post Bulletin, Champaign (Illinois) News-Gazette, Bend (Oregon) Bulletin and the Bakersfield (California) Californian.

Buyer interest continued to be driven primarily by strategic interests. In 20 of the transactions, or two-thirds, the buyer owned newspaper operations in the same region as the acquired publications. This included Forum Communications’ acquisition of the Rochester Post Bulletin in southeastern Minnesota.

Family owned Forum Communications has a large media presence in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin. Among other publications, Forum owns the nearby Red Wing Republican Eagle and other publications on both sides of the Mississippi River south of St. Paul. One of the regional strategies of Forum is to create services for its media properties, such as the Forum News Service and digital offerings.

The origins of Forum Communications date to the acquisition of the Fargo (North Dakota) Forum in 1878. Forum president Bill Marcil Jr. is the fifth generation of the family to own and operate the company, which now includes 36 newspapers, television and radio holdings.

New independent owners did emerge to take over in a handful of situations, however. Some independent and smaller family owners also added to their regional holdings. These included John Georges in Baton Rouge, who bought the Times Picayune in New Orleans; the owners of the Schenectady (New York) Daily Gazette, who folded in the neighboring daily in Amsterdam; and the owners of EO Media in Oregon, who acquired the Bend Bulletin and other papers from Western Communications.

EO Media Group, which is in the fourth generation of family ownership, is headquartered in Salem, Oregon. It began 2019 owning a daily newspaper in Pendleton, Oregon; weekly newspapers in Oregon and southwest Washington; and the Capital Press, a regional agricultural publication. By the end of the year, it had added the 15,000-circulation Bend Bulletin and a complementary weekly newspaper owned by Western Communications, as well as Western’s La Grande (Oregon) Observer and the Baker City (Oregon) Herald.

Other active buyers in 2019 included Adams Publishing Group, Ogden Newspapers, Paxton Media Group and affiliates of Horizon Publications.

Dirks, Van Essen, Murray & April is the leading merger and acquisition firm in the U.S. newspaper industry.