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Ziffs’ Computer Magazine Holdings Put on the Block : Publishing: Spirited bidding to gain control of titles such as PC Week is expected. Price could reach $3 billion.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Ziff family has put its computer publishing empire on the block, setting off what promises to be a spirited auction for some of most promising information businesses in the country.

Ziff Communications and its principal subsidiary, Ziff-Davis Publishing Co., dominate the computer publishing field with titles such as PC Magazine and PC Week, and have moved aggressively in recent years into trade show production, on-line computer services and other information industry niches.

Analysts said the company, with revenue of about $1 billion, could fetch anywhere from $1.5 billion to $3 billion, and a long list of major media and communications firms are expected to be interested.

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The decision to sell was made by the three young Ziff brothers--Dirk, Robert and Daniel--who own the company founded by their grandfather in 1927 and built into a powerhouse by their father, William Ziff Jr.

Dirk, 30, and Robert, 27, will now focus on the family investment business, Ziff Bros. Investments, which already has more than $1 billion in assets from the 1984 sale of 24 Ziff-Davis magazines. Daniel, 22, is a student at Columbia University.

“We decided a couple of months ago that publishing was not the way we wanted to spend the rest of our careers,” Dirk said. The family had always believed that absentee ownership was not appropriate, he said, so the decision was made to sell.

The Ziffs have retained Lazard Freres & Co. to find a buyer. Steven Rattner, the Lazard partner handling the deal, said that ideally the company would be sold in one piece, but it could be broken up into a few chunks if necessary to “maximize value.” The family hopes to complete a deal by year’s end.

Ziff’s two biggest direct competitors, International Data Group and CMP Publications, have been excluded as possible suitors, Dirk Ziff said. But other large magazine publishers--notably K-III Holdings, Advance Publications, McGraw Hill, Reed Elsevier of Britain, Thomson of Canada and Bertelsmann of Germany--are expected to show keen interest.

In addition, some believe that companies outside of publishing, including the regional Bell telephone companies and even Walt Disney Co., might view the Ziff properties as a way to gain a strategic position on the much-hyped information superhighway.

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Ziff has excellent connections in nearly every corner of the computer world through its magazine and trade show businesses. And its new on-line service, dubbed Interchange--which sources say cost about $75 million to develop--is more technically sophisticated than established services such as Prodigy and America Online.

The sale will end one of the most remarkable stories in American publishing. Bill Ziff Jr., who took control of the company at age 23 following the death of his father, built the company into a dominant force in special-interest publishing, with titles ranging from Popular Photography to Modern Bride.

But in the early 1980s, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and with his sons too young to take over, he decided to sell. In 1984, CBS bought 12 consumer magazines for $362.5 million, and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. purchased 12 trade publications for $350 million. All that remained was small, money-losing PC Magazine.

But Ziff’s cancer went into remission, and he proceeded to build a second empire--without using any of the money from the earlier sales.

Shortly before his father’s retirement last year, Dirk Ziff indicated in an interview that he was interested in spending more time on the investment business; he resigned his post as vice president of operations at Ziff-Davis earlier this year.

Robert Ziff, however, has a keen interest in computers and has long been closely involved in the Ziff-Davis magazines. Family members agreed Friday that it was Robert’s change of mind about being a magazine publisher--and the brothers’ desire to remain partners--that led to the decision to sell the company.

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“I always had more interest in publishing,” Robert said. “But the thing that happened that changed my mind is that I did it for a year again (after attending law school) and I realized it wasn’t playing to my strengths.”

Ziff Communications

* Owners: Dirk, Robert and Daniel Ziff--the sons of Chairman Emeritus Bill Ziff--and trusts they control own about 90% of the company. Remaining interests are held by other family members, including cousins Jim and Paul Stafford.

* Headquarters: New York

* Employees: 4,600

* Annual revenue: $1 billion

* Operating units:

* Ziff-Davis Publishing Co. Publishes eight domestic computer magazines, including PC Magazine and PC Week, with three more to be launched later this year. Publishes seven magazines in Europe and has licensed editions in 35 countries. Also includes Cobb Group newsletters, a computer book publishing group, and Computer Intelligence Infocorp, a market research company.

* Interchange Network Co. Includes Ziffnet, an information service offered over several on-line networks, and Interchange Online Network, to be launched by the end of this year.

* Ziff-Davis Exposition & Conference Co. Produces computer trade shows and conferences, including Networld + Interop and Digital World. Also publishes newsletters and offers computer training services.

* Information Access Co. Provides research databases for libraries and corporations.

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