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Murdoch, Finkelstein Close in on Nielsen’s THR: Is $70M Too Much?

Lachlan, not Rupert, is after the entertainment trade, along with an investor group.

Details continue to emerge about the impending sale of The Hollywood Reporter and other Nielsen titles including Billboard, Adweek, Mediaweek and Brandweek.

Now the Financial Times is reporting that, indeed, Lachlan Murdoch is involved in the deal, as reported earlier.

I keep hearing this deal is all but done. Lachlan’s investment group, Illyria, is teaming up with Pluribus Capital Management, "a new entity that includes James Finkelstein, the U.S. publisher of The Hill and Who’s Who; Matthew Doull, a nephew of Conrad Black and former publisher of Wired; and George Green, former publisher of Hearst International," the FT says.

The Times says the two groups will invest equal sums and be equally represented on the board, and that they intend to "step up investment across the businesses."

That does make it all very interesting, but here’s what we really want to know: 

How much? And what does such a savvy group of guys plan to do with these desperately sinking brands? 

The FT passes along a $70 million sale figure without confirming it. It’s hard to say if that’s realistic or not without knowing more details of the number of titles being sold. Once upon a time, about a year or two ago, there were numbers followed by the word "billion" when talking about selling the Nielsen Business Media division, or the Reed Business-owned trade publication group led by Variety.

No more. And even $70 million might be a lot to take on the Reporter, which has spent most of this year noticeably unencumbered by advertising, and with sharply declining web traffic. The word from inside the Nielsen division is that Gerry Byrne, who heads it, is likely to be shown the door with the sale. The future of Eric Mika, publisher of the Reporter, is considered very much in doubt.

What is certain is that Nielsen’s Business Media division is in dire straits from a business perspective; profits were down in the third quarter by 28%, including a drop of 54 percent in advertising. The trade just lost one of its few notable reporters, Steve Zeitchik, who left last week to join the L.A. Times (which is apparently expanding its entertainment reporting, despite that paper’s bankruptcy.)

As a brand, Billboard seems to be holding up the best of the lot, while Adweek, Mediaweek and Brandweek also are suffering severely from the collapse of the print business model.

Meanwhile, CFO Brian West should be on the hook for knowingly misleading analysts and reporters. He was asked directly in mid-November about selling Nielsen’s fading assets, and he actually cited BIllboard and the Reporter as the kinds of "iconic brands" that the company would seek to keep. He said this even as Waxword had reported the impending sale.

Lachlan Murdoch’s involvement does spice things up; just last week the young mogul – who left News Corp. in 2005 – bought 50 percent of Daily Mail & General Trust’s Australian radio assets for about $100 million. And he raised $28 million last week by selling half of his stake in his father’s company, where he remains a board member.

But honestly, I feel like telling these guys: Why are you sinking any money at all into these titles? The job of transforming these creaking frigates into the nimble digital news skiffs they need to be is nigh impossible.

It’s over. The good old days of the trades are as dead as the horse and buggy. Even the FT knows this, noting: 

"The titles also face growing online competition: The first details of the Nielsen bidders were reported by Sharon Waxman at The Wrap, one of two prominent blogs that have emerged to challenge the Hollywood Reporter and Variety as the best sources of film industry news and gossip." 

True that.

Read previous:

Nielsen THR Sale Approaches; Is Lachlan Murdoch Involved?

Seller Beware: Finkelstein Courted, Dumped IWantMedia

Sale? Nielsen Business Media Aflame With Earnings Down 28%

Hollywood Reporter Set to be Sold to ‘Who’s Who’s’ Finkelstein