Advocate Chain Bought by a Daily

Hartford Courant, Subsidiary of Times Mirror Company, Acquires Five AAN Weeklies.

New Mass. Media, Inc., owner of the Advocate Weekly chain of five alternative newsweeklies, will be sold to Courant Specialty Products, a subsidiary of The Hartford Courant Company.

The sale was announced Wednesday by Courant Publisher and CEO Marty Petty and Christine Austin and Geoffrey Robinson, owners and group publishers of New Mass. Media.

The acquisition, which is expected to be completed before the end of May, is subject to federal regulatory review. Terms of the deal were not disclosed. However, according to a source familiar with the situation, the price tag was “between $15 and $20 million.”

Austin and Robinson were both unavailable for comment Wednesday.

In a press release issued by New Mass. Media, Robinson said: “Management at The Courant understands the alternative press and its unique style, content, and relationship with readers. They are innovative and foster entrepreneurial activity. With The Courant’s financial strength and technical resources, I expect the company to thrive and expand in both existing and new business areas under its new ownership.”

New Mass. Media publishes five AAN member papers: Hartford Advocate, New Haven Advocate and the Valley Advocate, which covers western Massachusetts; and Fairfield County Weekly in Connecticut and Westchester County Weekly in suburban New York City. (The Fairfield and Westchester County papers share a joint management team and association membership.)

The Hartford Courant is Connecticut’s largest newspaper, with a daily circulation of 211,000. The Courant is a subsidiary of the Times Mirror Company, a Los Angeles-based media conglomerate whose holdings include seven daily papers, twenty magazines and several professional information specialty publications.

According to Hartford Business Journal reporter Mike Goodman, who attended the press conference announcing the deal, “The people from New Mass. said that they had been thinking about selling the papers for a long time–looking to sell to someone who could supply big money which would help the papers compete in the future.”

If Robinson and Austin were searching for buyers with deep pockets, they hit the jackpot with Times Mirror. In 1998, the company had annual revenue of more than $3 billion and its present market capitalization is over $4 billion. The company’s chairman is Mark Willes, the former General Mills executive who has been a controversial figure in journalism circles since he was named CEO of Times Mirror in 1995.

Times Mirror’s biggest papers are the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and New York Newsday. But the assets that will derive a strategic benefit from the New Mass. Media deal are the Hartford Courant and the two small papers it owns in affluent Fairfield County — The (Stamford) Advocate and Greenwich Time — another market in which Times Mirror presently competes with the Advocate Weekly chain.

The New Mass. Media deal comes fast on the heels of another Times Mirror acquisition in the markets served by the Advocate Weekly papers. Two weeks ago, the company acquired ValuMail, a shared mail company that distributes preprinted advertising to more than 1.1 million households across Connecticut and western Massachusetts.

While the sale of the Advocate chain caught some AAN members off-guard, it wasn’t a shock to many within the New Mass. Media rank-and-file.

“It’s not news to us. [Robinson and Austin, who are divorced,] have not been happy working together,” says one employee. “They put two to three years in where they tried to keep running the company together without selling. But after awhile, it became clear they couldn’t do it.

“[Because of their strained relationship] it was no fun. The company was in pain. Personally, I’m relieved.”

Adds Hartford Advocate Publisher Fran Zankowski: “I knew the company was searching for a buyer. I think [Robinson and Austin] knew it was difficult to continue. I also think they knew there comes a time when the best interests of the papers need to be served.”

At the press conference announcing the sale, the Courant’s Petty said the ownership change will not dilute the newsweeklies’ editorial product.

“Each organization will continue to set the priorities and standards that make the best sense for its readers and advertisers, but will share a commitment to excellence in their respective fields,” she said.

Zankowski says he is confident that Courant executives mean what they say.

“I know the people at the Courant. They’ve printed our paper for the last three years. We share this town. It’s a small town. I personally know them. And I trust them when they say to me they have no intentions [of meddling] with our papers.”