Pearson to sell FT Group to Axel Springer, reports say

The Financial Times
Adam Jefffery | CNBC

British publishing group Pearson is in advanced talks to sell the FT Group to Germany's biggest newspaper company Axel Springer, the Financial Times newspaper reported on Thursday.

British publisher Pearson is in advanced talks to sell the Financial Times Group to Germany's Axel Springer, bringing an end to its near 60-year ownership of the pink-paged business newspaper, media reports said on Thursday.

Reuters had earlier reported that Pearson, the world's leading education provider, had decided to sell the group which includes the paper, website and its share in the Economist.

Pearson was holding a board meeting on Thursday and an announcement was expected later in the day, two other people familiar with the details told Reuters. The FT and Germany's Der Spiegel said the buyer was German media group Axel Springer.

Recent media reports had suggested potential buyers could include Axel Springer, Thomson Reuters and Bloomberg.

If concluded, the deal would bring an end to years of speculation as to whether the 171-year-old Pearson would sell the FT, a so-called "trophy asset" which was first printed on pink paper in 1893 in order to stand out from rival titles.

Marjorie Scardino, who ran Pearson for 16 years, once said the FT would be sold "over my dead body". But a sale was seen more likely when John Fallon, who had no publishing experience, took over the top job in 2013.

Recent media reports from other news organisations have put the price tag as high as 1 billion pounds but analysts believe that is too high.

Trophy asset

While the FT has done a better job than most in adapting to the digital revolution, helped by a loyal customer base who will pay for access to the newspaper and website, analysts are not convinced it makes much of a profit.

Pearson does not break out the financial details of the newspapers.

"They've done a good job—probably better than anybody else from a U.K. newspaper perspective—in terms of transitioning to a model online, so I think you can see why that is attractive," said one analyst, who asked not to be named.

Full-year results for 2014 showed the FT increased its circulation by 10 percent to a record high of nearly 720,000 in print and online. More than 500,000 were digital subscriptions, representing 70 percent of the FT's total paying readers.

Pearson, founded in 1844 as a small building firm in Yorkshire, northern England, was once one of the world's largest building contractors and has had a long list of varied interests from banking and publishing to owning theme parks and Madame Tussaud's waxworks.

It bought the FT in 1957.

The group though has moved to focus solely on education and has sold off other news interests such as Mergermarket Group and a company which included French business newspaper Les Echos in recent years. In 2012 it merged its Penguin book division with Random House.

It has endured a tough time of late, with weaker demand in the North American education arm. Analyst Ian Whittaker said Pearson would likely use any proceeds to pay down debt.

"If they could obtain a trophy asset price then it could look pretty good against the relatively modest profits that the FT generates," said Richard Marwood, senior fund manager at AXA Investment Managers, a shareholder in Pearson.

Shares in Pearson, which is due to report results on Friday, were up 2.2 percent in mid-morning trading.