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Hearst's magazine publishing group continues to look for acquisitions and is more likely to purchase a print property than a digital asset, president David Carey said.
"We would buy more magazines if they are category leaders," Carey said in an interview with CNBC Digital at Hearst's New York headquarters earlier this week. "We like to acquire earnings potential."
Carey said although digital media is growing faster than print, it tends to be from a very small base. And in many cases, digital properties that are up for sale aren't profitable. "It's hard for us to pay $200 million for properties that don't make money," he said. Hearst's portfolio of magazines includes Cosmopolitan, Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, Esquire and Popular Mechanics.
Carey added that all-stock deals have contributed to a run-up in valuations for digital properties. As a private company, Hearst naturally pays with cash and doesn't have stock to use as a currency. "The acquisitions being made by Google and Yahoo don't help, " he said.
Carey's comments come as the magazine industry has suffered several years of revenue declines as many advertisers and consumers give up print publications in favor of digital alternatives. Hearst and others like Time Inc. and Meredith Corp. have focused on building up digital media of their own to compete with young websites that have exploded in popularity over the last several years.
Carey said digital revenue continues to grow at Hearst, which remains a private company, but that the company generally prefers to invest in digital projects internally rather than grow through acquisitions.
On the print side, Hearst appears to have held up better than some rivals thanks to its heavy reliance on monthly fashion and beauty magazines. Cosmopolitan, its largest title by revenue, saw ad sales rise 12 percent to $432 million in 2013, according to the Publishers Information Bureau. That was more revenue than the magazine earned at its 2007 peak before sales began to fall off during the financial crisis.
"Fashion advertisers are committed to print. It's still a growth business," he said, adding that some consumers buy fashion magazines "almost as much for the advertisements as the editorial content."
Hearst's rival Time Inc. also has fashion titles, including InStyle, that have performed well recently. Yet its broader business remains challenged. Time Inc. depends on weekly titles such as Time, which has struggled to compete against Internet rivals.
Time Inc. was previously part of Time Warner but was spun out in to a separate company earlier this year. In early 2013, Time Warner was in talks with Meredith Corp. about selling some magazine titles but ultimately decided to spin off the business when those discussions fizzled. Time Warner's magazine revenue fell to $3.4 billion in 2013 from $4.9 billion in 2005, according to Evercore Group.
Carey said that consolidation is likely as the industry looks for ways to drive profit growth amid sagging revenues. Still, he said that sellers will probably take time to adjust to lower prices that result from lower profit levels and lower multiples.
Hearst has been perhaps the most active buyer of magazines in the last few years. In 2011, it paid about $900 million for a group of magazines including Elle from Lagardère SCA of France.
"All around the world I think you'll see a spike in consolidation," Carey said. "There are clear savings to be had."
—By CNBC.com's John Jannarone