It has been tough sledding for print media. More than 150 newspapers have closed or converted to digital-only offerings in the last two years. Recently the magazine giants Condé Nast and Time have both cut employees and closed magazines.
What, then, to make of the recent sales of The Financial Times and The Economist for sky-high prices?
In July, to sharpen its focus on textbook publishing and testing, the British media company Pearson agreed to sell The Financial Times to Nikkei, an employee-owned Japanese publisher, for about 855 million British pounds, or about $1.3 billion, in cash. Pearson had owned The Financial Times for 58 years. Then, in August, Pearson sold its 50 percent stake in the Economist Group, publisher of The Economist, for £469 million, or about $715 million, to the Economist Group itself and to Exor S.p.A., the investment arm of Italy's powerful Agnelli family.
The transactions turned heads, not only in media circles, but also on Wall Street. Nikkei paid 44 times The Financial Times's operating profit. Exor paid 15 times the Economist Group's operating profit. By contrast, Gannett, owner of USA Today and the largest public newspaper publisher, trades at about five times trailing cash flow, as does McClatchy, another large newspaper group.
Both buyers are exultant. In an interview, John Elkann, Exor's 39-year-old chairman, said that he started reading The Economist as a teenager. Over the last five years, he said, Exor's sliver of equity, which increased to 43.4 percent in the deal, has given him insight into the power of the brand and its annual operating profit of about £65 million.