Thursday, January 03, 2008

A weather channel? Ridiculous

Frank Batten Sr. is one of the smartest people I ever knew, but when word got around nearly three decades ago that he was thinking of developing a full-time cable channel that produced nothing but weather reports, a lot of us who worked for his company wondered if we’d be out of work before long. A pricey gamble on starting up something as outlandish as the Weather Channel might have implications for the morning and evening newspapers in Greensboro, Norfolk and Roanoke.
Batten, of course, knew exactly what he was doing: He was creating a worldwide success that would capture the attention of viewers and advertisers, bring in gobs of cash and lead to the development of the lucrative weatherchannel.com Web site.
Those ventures were just one reason that Landmark Newspapers remained a highly successful, privately held firm at a time when other newspaper companies were growing faster and attracting public investors. Batten and his successors surely faced lots of challenges running a newspaper business in this market, but they weren’t precisely the same pressures from stockholders that publicly held companies have faced.
So when the news broke overnight that Landmark Communications was considering selling off parts of the company, it came as a surprise.
“We are exploring strategic alternatives, and that can entail a number of possibilities, one of which is the sale of the company’s businesses,” said Landmark vice chairman Richard F. Barry III in an AP story. “It’s very early in the process.”
It’s no secret that Landmark has been approached before about some of its properties, including the Weather Channel, which some believe could go for $5 billion or more.
I worked for years for its newspapers, starting with the Greensboro Daily News, Landmark’s Washington Bureau during the Watergate investigations and later in the Daily News’ Raleigh Bureau and editorial departments. The Greensboro paper produced some giants of journalism: Gerald W. Johnson, Burke Davis, Ed Yoder and Jonathan Yardley among many others.
Now Landmark has engaged JPMorgan Chase and Lehman Brothers to help the company consider selling the Weather Channel, the AP reports. The story did not disclose why the company would consider selling any of its parts, but it’s fair to conclude that some family members or private stockholders wanted to cash out rather than stay in the newspaper business now. It’s not the first time and won’t be the last.
And who knows? Maybe some of those folks will take the money and develop the next version of the Weather Channel.

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