Newspaper Dealmaking Heats Up as Newcastle Aims to Spend $1B

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) - Phil Murray, a partner at the pre-eminent newspaper advisory firm Dirks, Van Essen & Murray, based in Santa Fe, N.M., says mergers and acquisitions among print legacy businesses remain vibrant even if volume has declined in recent years.

Murray, a former journalist, was talking about the future of newspaper dealmaking after Wes Edens, Chairman of Newcastle Investment Corp. ( NCT), a health care real estate investment trust and affiliate of the private-equity firm Fortress Investment Group, said last week that his company is prepared to spend as much as $1 billion aggregating small and medium-sized newspapers into New Media, the working name of the entity that will combine Fortress's Gatehouse Media ( GHSE) with the publications that Newcastle acquired last week from News Corp.'s ( GHSE) Dow Jones Local Media Group.

"There is sufficient deal flow for GateHouse/Newcastle to spend $1 billion if they want to," Murray said, in a phone interview from Santa Fe.

Gatehouse, which has $1.2 billion in debts, said it plans to file a "pre-packaged bankruptcy" this week with creditor support.

"That wouldn't have been a lot six years ago, but one billion dollars buys you a lot of newspapers now," Murray added. "A lot of newspaper dealmaking is driven by building larger, regional clusters that make it more attractive to sell larger advertisers on a digital footprint. The Dow Jones papers fit pretty well with what they've already got."

So far in 2013, newspaper mergers and acquisitions have totaled $635 million, just about even with all of 2012 when deal volume reached $643 million, according to data compiled by Dirks, Van Essen & Murray. Of course, Jeff Bezos' purchase of Washington Post's ( WPO) namesake publication pads that number. In 2011, newspaper M&A hit $789 million, a gigantic rebound from 2010 when dealmaking totaled just $149 million.

Those were all down years compared to life before the 2008 recession, when newspaper deals totaled $2 billion to $3 billion per year, Murray added. M&A activity in the industry skyrocketed to a record $20 billion in 2007, that year of drunken-spending when Sam Zell overpaid to take Tribune ( TRBAA) private and Rupert Murdoch succeeded in fulfilling his dream to own The Wall Street Journal when News Corp. ( NWSA) paid top-dollar to take control of Dow Jones Co. In that same year, Gatehouse bought a handful of newspapers from Gannett ( GCI ).

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