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PiPress owner sells off papers: a local portent?

[Note: story updated Monday, Aug. 11 10 a.m. with Media News sales memo.]

Media News Group, which owns the Pioneer Press, has been forced to sell a Connecticut daily and seven Nutmeg State weeklies to “manage its balance sheet during a challenging economic environment,” according to Media News president Joseph Lodovic.

Does this mark the beginning of the end for Denver-based Media News, which went on a big 2006 buying spree when it gobbled up Knight Ridder papers such as the PiPress? The buyer is Hearst Corp., which — though few remember it — briefly owned the PiPress that year.

Then-Strib owner McClatchy Corp. had bought Knight Ridder, and had to sell the PiPress to avoid antitrust problems. Hearst ponied up the cash, then flipped the PiPress (and other papers) for an undisclosed ownership stake in Media News. (Hearst almost certainly has an interest in the PiPress.)

In 2007, Media News acquired some of the Connecticut weeklies in much the same way, according to Editor & Publisher. However, Hearst has other Connecticut papers, while it has none in Minnesota.

So could the PiPress soon flip back to Hearst?

Not according to Media News CEO William Dean Singleton: “The sale of the Connecticut Post to Hearst was a transaction from one partner to another. There are no plans for further transactions.”

Well, OK — that seems pretty definitive. (Update: You can read Singleton’s memo to Media News workers here.) But things change in the fiscally melting newspaper industry, so let’s take a quick look at the Hearst-Media News situation.

As Lodovic’s sale announcement notes, Media News is struggling. In March, Standard and Poor’s predicted the company would violate its loan covenants in “the near term.” Shortly after, Media News worked a deal where it no longer reported loan information publicly.

Since then, the company’s bond rating has plummeted and it has cut or trimmed sections at many of its 61 papers, including the PiPress. That’s not unprecedented in today’s media biz, but Hearst’s balance sheet is likely stronger, partly because it is not a pure newspaper company.

Hearst, which owns 16 dailies in places like Houston, San Francisco and Seattle, also has substantial investments in magazines (Cosmo, Esquire, Good Housekeeping), TV (including interests in ESPN, A&E and Lifetime networks) and all kinds of digital media.

Hearst is effectively Media News’s banker; the 2006 deal gave it the right to acquire a majority of Media News, Hearst’s then-CEO Victor F. Ganzi told the New York Times

Hearst may not be the most willing print buyer, however. This June, Ganzi resigned. The New York Times’ Richard Pérez-Peña quoted unnamed “joint venture partners” saying there had been disagreements with Hearst’s board over the corporation’s $288 million Media News investment.

Still, like many other newspaper lenders these days, Hearst could be forced to acquire a paper like the PiPress it otherwise wouldn’t want.

If you want to go way out on speculation island — and what the heck, it’s Friday — Hearst might be the logical deep-pocketed acquirer of both Twin Cities dailies. This assumes a lot: that financial weakness overwhelms the anti-trust hurdle blocking a single local paper, and that Media News is so weak it can’t do the combining.

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