Gannett (GCI - Get Report) announced Wednesday, July 6, that it had acquired certain assets from North Jersey Media Group, expanding its suite of papers in New Jersey as it continues to pursue the publisher of the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune.
In the statement, Gannett said the acquisition will add about $90 million to its annual revenue and "will approach approximately corporate-average margins by the end of the first full year of operations." For the full year ended Dec. 27, Gannett posted revenue of $2.89 billion.
The McLean, Va.-based publisher acquired The Record of Bergen County, the Herald News of Passaic County and their respective affiliated digital properties.
The Borg family has owned and operated The Record since 1930 and acquired the Herald News in 1997.
Third-generation owner Malcolm Borg told The Record on Wednesday that the sale is "a great fit culturally for North Jersey and for Gannett."
The acquisition makes the USA Today publisher, which already owns the Asbury Park Press, among other papers in the Garden State, the "leading news provider in the state of New Jersey" as the company "continues to execute on its local market growth strategy," Gannett CEO Robert Dickey said in a statement.
The Record is a particularly prominent paper, notably breaking the Chris Christie "Bridgegate" story and taking the iconic "Raising the Flag at Ground Zero" photograph on Sept. 11. With a daily circulation of about 150,000, the paper is the second largest in the state, after the Newark-based Star-Ledger, owned by the Newhouse family's Advance Publications.
North Jersey's papers reach 98% of homes in Bergen and Passaic counties in the state's northeast corner.
In addition to USA Today, Gannett owns 109 daily papers in 34 U.S. states and Guam along with U.K. online and print media group Newsquest Media.
Barely a week before disclosing the New Jersey acquisition, the publisher announced it would pay $156 million for digital marketing services company ReachLocal at a nearly 190% premium.
Jefferies analyst John Janedis estimated in a June 28 note that following the close of the ReachLocal acquisition, Gannett will have 1.3 times net leverage.
That acquisition reflects Gannett's "previously referenced plans to broaden its acquisition strategy to include digital, and in turn, shape a new strategic direction for the company," he wrote.
In addition to the digital push, Gannett has aggressively expanded its portfolio of local newspapers. On Oct. 7, Gannett shelled out $280 million for Journal Media Group and its 15 dailies, including the flagship Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The target generated about $450 million in sales.
Gannett is also continuing its long-running hostile pursuit of Tronc (TRNC) , formerly known as Tribune Publishing. Gannett, on June 7, reiterated its hostile bid to acquire Tribune, the parent of the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and nine other papers, for $15 per share, or $864 million.
Media industry sources agreed that the ongoing Tribune dispute is probably unrelated to the New Jersey acquisition.
"I don't think they're related," said a source familiar with the matter who asked for anonymity. "The Tribune sale is on the back burner, but it's not off the stove."
Reed Phillips, managing partner at investment bank DeSilva & Phillips, echoed these comments.
"I wouldn't think it would have any implications" for Tribune, he said. "I think they've got a sizable war chest and the ability to do the Tribune deal regardless. It shows their continuing appetite for newspapers, which is unusual in today's climate."
Rather, Phillips asserted, Gannett is rolling up local papers because it believes they're undervalued.
"My impression is that they think they can bring something to the operations to lower the cost structure, but at the same time I think they've figured out some ways on the revenue side to manage their papers more effectively in a way that makes them believe that the current value of papers is too low," he explained, noting that newspapers typically sell for about 4 times Ebitda.
"A lot of times what I'm seeing with buyers of newspapers is a lot of them are available and buyers are looking at a lot of options at the same time and then deciding which to go with," Phillips added. "I think they're looking at it that way. There's no dearth of newspapers for Gannett to buy."
Michael Kupinski, an analyst at Noble Financial Capital Markets, similarly believes that the New Jersey assets are part of Gannett's "acquisition binge," which will continue.
"The industry needs to scale, and that's likely what Gannett is trying to do," he said. "They're trying to get scale so they can take out efficiencies, develop and transition more quickly into the digital future, get enough traffic on their newspaper websites so they can monetize that through national advertising and programmatic buying, and so on."
These efficiencies include "scale both nationally and regionally, consolidated production and distribution facilities, and a whole host of things," Kupinski added.
The source agreed, pointing to Gannett's other newspapers near its newly acquired properties. In addition to other New Jersey papers, for example, Gannett also owns The Journal News of Westchester County, N.Y., which like Bergen County is a suburb of New York City.
"There are potential efficiencies that you can gain when you have adjacent newspaper properties," the source explained. Still, the source does not expect Gannett to acquire Manhattan dailies such as the Daily News or New York Post should they become available. The Post is owned by News Corp. (NWSA - Get Report) , while the Daily News' owner, Mortimer Zuckerman, shelved an auction for the paper last summer.
Gannett shares on Wednesday added 2.5%, to $13.67, but closed Thursday at $13.38, down 2.1%.
A Gannett spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment. Representatives of the Borg family could not be reached for comment.