Nikkei, the Japanese media company, has trumped Germany's Axel Springer, in a tussle to buy the FT Group from Pearson for £844m, bringing the curtain down on its 58-year ownership of the London-based global news organisation.
Pearson has for the past few weeks been exploring a sale of the group, which comprises the Financial Times, a number of related titles and a 50 per cent stake in the Economist Group, publisher of the Economist magazine.
However, the deal excludes the Economist stake and the FT headquarters on London's Southwark Bridge.
Axel Springer, the predominantly German publisher, on Thursday said in a short statement it would not purchase the FT Group.
Nikkei is one of Japan's largest publishers with annual sales of about £1bn.
Pearson's former chief executive Dame Marjorie Scardino had pledged that the FT would be sold "over my dead body". Her successor John Fallon, who took over in January 2013, has not repeated the pledge but has often said that the FT is integral to Pearson's commercial and strategic vision.
A Bloomberg article this week said Pearson was willing to consider offers for the FT while a Reuters report on Thursday said Pearson had decided to sell the FT to an unnamed "global, digital news company".
Shares in Pearson, which is due to report six-monthly results tomorrow, have fallen one-fifth since March.
Pearson shares were up 2.2 per cent in morning trading at £12.36. "The company is not performing well overall, so disposing an asset would obviously be good news," said one banker.
The news comes as the media landscape is being transformed in the face of the expanding role of big internet groups such as Google in providing news.
"If a deal goes ahead, it is imperative that there are independently audited safeguards to protect the independence of the FT," said Sir David Bell, a former chairman of the FT Group and a former director of Pearson.
The FT's total circulation in April had risen 12 per cent year-on-year to 722,000 across print and online. FT.com subscriptions increased 20 per cent compared with the previous year to 522,000, representing 70 per cent of the total circulation, with print down about 5 per cent at 213,000.
The FT has an editorial team of 500 journalists in more than 50 locations around the world. It was first published as a four-page newspaper in 1888 and was bought by Pearson in 1957.
The larger FT Group includes titles such as The Banker, and a 50 per cent stake in the Economist Group, publisher of the Economist magazine.
In the past two decades Pearson has sold off stakes in several of its non-education businesses, including Madame Tussauds, Alton Towers, the Lazard investment banks, its stake in market indices provider FTSE and the Les Echos French media group.
In April, Pearson said earnings per share this year were expected to be between 75p and 80p, up from 66p last year.
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- Timeline: Pearson and the Financial Times
- Pearson to sell Powerschool for $350m
- Pearson confirms chairman's departure
- Pearson names new chief financial officer
Pearson has lost several major education contracts this year. This month the state of New York announced it was dropping the company as its testing vendor and replacing it with Questar Assessment, a smaller US-based company, in a $44m, five-year contract.
Claudio Aspesi at Bernstein Research this week questioned whether it was the right time for Pearson to sell: "Selling the FT at this moment in time would trigger the pursuit of additional acquisitions (because holding the cash would be dilutive to earnings) at a time when management should focus on continuing to reduce costs and streamline the company."
In April, the Los Angeles Unified School District informed Pearson and its partner Apple that it was cancelling a contract for the rollout of iPads and learning software, saying it was "extremely dissatisfied" with their previous work. Pearson this year also lost its 30-year-old testing monopoly in Texas.