Contenders May Fade for Knight Ridder

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Times Staff Writer

Two groups of private investment firms that have been weighing takeover offers for newspaper chain Knight Ridder Inc. appear to be fading as serious contenders for the San Jose-based company.

A group made up of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., Blackstone Group and Providence Equity Partners and a second composed of Bain Capital, Hellman & Friedman, Thomas H. Lee Partners and Texas Pacific Group are unlikely to make bids much above Knight Ridder’s current stock price, people familiar with the parties said Friday.

Bids at or near the current price aren’t likely to be acceptable to Knight Ridder, the sources said.


Knight Ridder declined to comment, and representatives of the investment firms declined to comment or didn’t return calls. Reuters reported that the Kohlberg Kravis group had decided to pull out of the bidding, but that couldn’t be confirmed.

The investment groups were among four known bidders for Knight Ridder, which put itself up for sale in November under pressure from disgruntled shareholders.

The next round of bids are due Thursday.

Still in the running are McClatchy Co., which owns the Bee newspapers, and an alliance including Dean Singleton’s MediaNews Group Inc. and Gannett Co., the only U.S. chain with a larger combined circulation than Knight Ridder.

Knight Ridder owns 32 daily newspapers, including the San Jose Mercury News and the Miami Herald.

Analysts said the investment firms might be losing interest because, as non-newspaper companies, they wouldn’t be able to combine corporate jobs with those of an existing news operation -- removing a potential source of cost cutting. They also said tax laws would make it difficult for the firms to resell pieces of the company for a substantial profit.

If MediaNews and Gannett acquire Knight Ridder, they are expected to divvy up the chain’s papers, with MediaNews theoretically taking more of the large papers, Morgan Stanley analyst Doug Arthur said. McClatchy might be less aggressive than the others in cutting costs if it wins, industry analyst John Morton said.


In either of those scenarios, the changes are likely to be less abrupt than they would be under the ownership of a private investment firm, Arthur said.

The reluctance of the private investors to make strong bids would give the Knight Ridder board more leeway to reject all buyout offers. Instead, the company might buy back much of its public shares or combine its operations with McClatchy in a stock merger, analysts said.

In a merger or if one of the newspaper groups acquires Knight Ridder, antitrust issues could force some of the papers to be sold to other buyers. A union representing workers at nine Knight Ridder papers said it had spoken with all of the potential acquirers about using employee pension funds to take ownership at some or all of those properties.

Under an unusual provision in Knight Ridder’s bylaws, a panel of experts must evaluate whether any acquiring company would be likely to encourage high-quality journalism. If the panel approves the acquirer and the Knight Ridder board agrees, a two-thirds shareholder vote is enough to approve a sale. If they decide the opposite and the board agrees, the vote must top 80%.

The three-member panel has been picked but not identified by name. James Naughton, former executive editor of Knight Ridder’s Philadelphia Inquirer and an organizer of company veterans concerned about the publisher’s future, said the panel would have no problem with McClatchy and might support MediaNews and Gannett’s initiative.

Knight Ridder’s stock rose 12 cents to $62.37.