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Clouds Lifting Over Murdoch, He’s Out to Buy Again

Amy Chozick | The New York Times
Tuesday, 20 Nov 2012 | 1:06 AM ET

News Corporation is starting to look like its old self again. The media conglomerate, which had been on its heels for more than a year because of the phone hacking scandal in Britain, is looking to make acquisitions again.

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First on the list could be a 49 percent stake in the Yes Network in New York, a purchase that could aid in the formation of a new nationwide sports network to compete with ESPN.

News Corporation's stock has reached highs as the company prepares to transfer its underperforming publishing assets, including newspapers like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Post, into a separate publicly traded entity.

One of the crucial factors in the decision was that the split would allow Rupert Murdoch, the company's chairman and chief executive, to buy into the businesses he loves without upsetting investors who are more interested in cable and broadcast. Potential targets include The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune and more education companies.

(Read More: Cramer Welcomes Possibility of News Corp Split)

"Rupert has his mojo back," said Todd Juenger, a media analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein. "The stock is up, investors are happy with the company's recent decisions."

"He is definitely rubbing his hands together," a person with knowledge of News Corporation's deal-making discussions said of Mr. Murdoch.

In the last several weeks, Mr. Murdoch has exuded a satisfaction and sure-footedness that people close to the company said they had not seen since before Mr. Murdoch's British newspaper unit became embroiled in a phone hacking scandal. That is in part because hacking has been overtaken in the press by an unfolding scandal at the British Broadcasting Corporation.

The BBC, which Mr. Murdoch and his son James have frequently criticized, is accused of canceling a news program's segment about serial child molesting committed by longtime host Jimmy Savile, and broadcasting false reports of pedophilia about a member of Margaret Thatcher's administration.

People close to Mr. Murdoch said he considered the BBC scandal karmic justice for months of negative coverage of News Corporation, and he has provided almost daily commentary via Twitter. "BBC getting into deeper mess," he wrote on Nov. 10. "After Savile scandal, now prominent news program falsely names senior pol as pedophile."

(Read More: Murdoch Wins: Shareholder Proposals Rejected)

And the BBC scandal touches another Murdoch rival — The New York Times, whose parent company's new chief executive, Mark Thompson, served as director general at the BBC. Mr. Thompson's replacement at the BBC, George Entwistle, resigned on Nov. 11 after just 54 days on the job. "Look to new CEO to shape up NYT unless recalled to BBC to explain latest scandal," Mr. Murdoch wrote on Twitter last month.

As News Corporation sank into its hacking scandal last year, it delayed new acquisitions. In September, Britain's Office of Communications, known as Ofcom, said that British Sky Broadcasting, 39.1 percent owned by News Corporation, was "fit and proper" to hold a broadcast license. The decision removed a cloud of uncertainty at News Corporation's Manhattan headquarters and cleared the company to revisit deals, analysts said.

"The internal narrative at the company is that the boss is in shopping mode," said one person close to News Corporation who could not discuss Mr. Murdoch's thinking publicly.

Dropping its $12 billion bid for the portion of BSkyB that it did not already own gave News Corporation ample cash to complete share buybacks and consider other acquisitions. The company had $9.6 billion in cash at the end of its 2012 fiscal year and in September borrowed another $1 billion.

On a recent earnings call, Chase Carey, News Corporation's president and chief operating officer, said: "We always seem to be the topic of the day when it comes to a rumor of some transaction." Still, he added: "There are places where we think we should kick the tires on things."

(Read More: Murdoch: News Corp Split The Right Thing to Do)

Last week News Corporation neared a deal with Yankees Global Enterprises to buy a 49 percent stake in the Yes Network, a regional New York sports network with a valuation of about $3 billion. A stake in Yes would add to News Corporation's lineup of regional sports channels and contribute to its reported plans to introduce a national cable sports channel that could take on the Walt Disney Company's ESPN.

"It's one of the only businesses where there's no No. 2," said Michael Nathanson, a media analyst at Nomura Securities. "In our view, sports is the safest asset in media."

This month the company paid an estimated $250 million for the portion of ESPN Star Sports that it did not already own. ESPN Star Sports, based in Singapore, operates 17 sports networks in five languages around Asia.

Then there are publishing assets that the 81-year-old Mr. Murdoch has long coveted, like The Los Angeles Times. Its owner, the bankrupt Tribune Company, is looking for a buyer for its struggling newspapers, including The Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune.

Julie Henderson, a spokeswoman for News Corporation, called recent reports that News Corporation was in talks with Tribune Company and The Los Angeles Times "wholly inaccurate." News Corporation's last major acquisition, of Dow Jones & Company, publisher of The Journal and Barron's, for $5.6 billion in 2007, was unpopular among investors.

(Read More: News Corp. Beats Street's Earnings Forecast)

But the structure of the coming split of News Corporation could give Mr. Murdoch considerable resources to indulge his love of newspapers. While the final details of the split won't be announced until next month, News Corporation has arranged for its sluggish publishing division to be bolstered by Australian pay television assets, which will make up the bulk of the earnings in the newly formed company. In Australia, the company recently paid $2.01 billion to increase its stake in Australia's dominant pay TV provider, Foxtel.

"All of the Australian assets go into the split-off company," Mr. Murdoch said in June. "It is just a lot simpler."

That structure also gives the company's hard-hit newspapers a financial safety net and Mr. Murdoch capital. Mr. Carey, News Corporation's president, has said the company will invest in its fledgling education division. Run by a former New York City schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, the education group, called Amplify, will be part of the new company.

Last month, News Corporation explored a $1.6 billion cash offer for Pearson's Penguin publishing house. Penguin ultimately merged with Bertelsmann's Random House. But News Corporation's interest raised questions about other acquisitions that would bring scale to its HarperCollins book division, also part of the publishing company.

"He'll have the currency" to do whatever he wants, said a person who discussed the split plan with Mr. Murdoch.

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