Paper Trail

01.23.15 6:07 PM ET

New York Times’ Owner to Bloomberg: It's ‘Not. For. Sale.’

The NYT stoutly maintains it is not for sale, after a flurry of rumors that the former New York City Mayor is considering a bid to purchase the paper.

Would media mogul Mike Bloomberg like to buy The New York Times? That question has been raised continually over the past decade, and it’s the subject of renewed speculation today in a gossipy, hypothetical piece posted on New York magazine’s web site.        

The former three-term mayor, said to be the wealthiest person in New York, whose reported net worth is north of $33 billion, could certainly afford to acquire a publicly traded media company with a market capitalization of a mere $2 billion—even if he had to pay a substantial premium. 

But would Times Co. Chairman Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., publisher of the newspaper, ever agree to sell it? It’s not crazy to ask. After all, hardly anyone imagined that the legendary Graham family would sell The Washington Post, another financially strapped newspaper plagued by layoffs and buyouts, right up until the moment that they unloaded it on Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos for a paltry $250 million.

Over breakfast in July 2013 in Sulzberger’s private dining room at the Renzo Piano-designed Times headquarters, I put the question to him directly, mentioning that people talk about the possibility that Bloomberg could swoop in with a suitcase full of cash. 

“Imagine. People talk. What a shock,” Sulzberger retorted sarcastically. “The Times,” he added, slapping his palm on the table, “is Not. For. Sale.”

Never?

“How many kids do you have?” he asked.        

“Two.”        

“Are either of them for sale? I just want to make sure we understand.”        

This morning a Times spokesperson reaffirmed that Sulzberger—whose family has owned the paper since 1896 and today controls the company through a special class of stock—has no intention of selling to Bloomberg or anyone else. “He has repeatedly said on behalf of his family that the Times is not for sale,” the spokesperson emailed. “Nothing has changed.”        

NEW YORK - APRIL 21: A man speaks on his mobile phone across from The New York Times headquarters building April 21, 2011 in New York City. The New York Times profits fell 58 percent in the first quarter of 2011. (Photo by Ramin Talaie/Getty Images)

Ramin Talaie

Yet New York magazine also speculates that Mexican telecom billionaire Carlos Slim Helu’—who recently, as expected, raised his ownership stake to 17 percent of Times Co. common stock—might look favorably on, and even encourage, such a transaction since it would earn him a tidy profit.

I doubt it. Slim, allegedly the second richest human on the planet (after Bill Gates) with an estimated net worth of $72 billion, hardly needs the chump change.

And it’s apparent that he sees himself as a passive, long-term investor who simply likes being associated with the Times brand—which is one of the reasons that Sulzberger accepted a $250 million emergency loan from Slim in 2009 to help the Times over a cash flow hump, and politely rejected a similar offer from entertainment tycoon David Geffen, who clearly had designs on the company.

When I spoke to Slim back in September 2011, the management of the Times newsroom—a special interest of Geffen’s—wasn’t even on his radar screen. I asked Slim what he thought of the paper’s then-newly installed top editor, Jill Abramson.  “I’m sorry. Who?” he answered.

“It’s a financial investment,” Slim told me, noting that the Times had paid back his loan, at 14 percent interest, well ahead of schedule. “It was a very good sign when they paid back the loan early,” he added,  “and if I invest part of the payment or part of the interest, it’s because I think it’s a good company and a great brand. Now they’re doing buybacks and the dividend is so high, etc., and they’re managing the newspaper in a very good way. We are not speculating. We are there for a long time. But if the stock goes down more, it will be interesting—because it will come back more.”

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New York magazine’s story seems to be on firmer ground when it reports that longtime Bloomberg lieutenant Kevin Sheekey, a deputy mayor in the Bloomberg administration, has been pushing the boss to consider making a bid.

Indeed, a thorough dusting for fingerprints could show that the always ambitious and entrepreneurial Sheekey is all over the article—much as he fed press speculation eight years ago that Hizzoner might run for president.

Bloomberg, of course, stuck to his knitting at City Hall. And in this case—despite the New York story’s claim that he has privately expressed interest to Sulzberger—he has publicly disclaimed any hopes to own the Times.

So today’s theoretical investigation—which seems to have resulted in a welcome spike in The New York Times Co. stock price—could very well be, as one informed observer put it, “Sheekey’s 2015 version of Mike may run for president.”

Sheekey didn’t return my phone call and a Bloomberg spokesperson declined to comment—which, as everybody understands, only fuels the agreeable intrigue on this bright, crisp winter’s day.