Stern Sold to Investor Group

New Times Inc. Among the Final Bidders.

The Stern Publishing Group has been sold, and now the rest of us can go back to living our lives.

In one of the most hotly anticipated events in alternative newsweekly history, Hartz Mountain chieftain Leonard Stern sold his seven-paper chain Tuesday to a management group led by current Stern President David Schneiderman and backed by private investment firm Weiss, Peck & Greer. Stern put the papers up for sale in September when his children decided they did not have an interest in running the company.

The New York Times reported that “a source familiar with the finances of Stern Publishing” said the papers were sold for between $150 and $160 million. The sale was handled by the investment banking firm Veronis, Suhler & Associates.

The newly formed company will be known as Village Voice Media, and will include the seven Stern papers, plus the Nashville Scene and Lexington, Kentucky’s, Ace Magazine. Those papers were acquired by Weiss, Peck late last month.

Joining Schneiderman on the management team will be Art Howe, former President of Montgomery Newspapers, which owns the Philadelphia City Paper ; Nashville Scene Publisher Albie Del Favero; and LA/OC Weekly Publisher Michael Sigman. Howe’s title is president; Del Favero and Sigman will be Executive Vice Presidents, with the former responsible for the company’s operations in the South and the latter overseeing papers in the West. Nicholas Di Carlo was named chief financial officer. All of them will report to Schneiderman.

Howe and Del Favero have equity stakes in the new venture, along with Del Favero’s partner, Nashville Scene Editor Bruce Dobie.

Del Favero and Dobie will continue in their current positions at the Scene, and Sigman has increased the responsibilities of key LA and OC Weeklies’ staffers so that he can devote more time to his new duties with Voice Media.

Weiss, Peck’s involvement in the deal was initiated by Art Howe, who left his position with Montgomery Newspapers in October to “build a national media company, focusing on urban newsweeklies.” In December, Howe and Weiss, Peck launched their first salvo, acquiring the Nashville Scene. In that transaction, Scene co-owners Del Favero and Dobie surrendered equity in their paper in return for an ownership interest in the new company, which later acquired a stake in Ace Magazine.

Schneiderman says he was brought on board when Howe and Weiss, Peck began to make their move for the Stern chain: “When [Weiss, Peck] decided to bid, the condition was that I stay, and they said, ‘If you stay and invest in the company with us, we’ll bid for it.”

The new company has aggressive expansion plans, says Schneiderman. “[We want to] increase the pace of acquisition of alternative newspapers around the country, utilize the power of these brands in their local markets, to grow a substantial Internet presence and exploit opportunities in the radio market through cross-ownership and cross-promotion,” he says.

In what promises to be a bruising battle for chain dominance in the alternative newspaper business, Voice Media will start with nine papers with a combined circulation of 920,000, while its leading competitor, New Times Inc. has 11 papers with a total circulation of 1.15 million.

The new company also wants to partner with Internet firms that are looking for local news. “I want multiple channels of distribution,” Schneiderman told the New York Times. “I want the reporter to feel that you don’t have to wait for a publication cycle.”

Jim Thompson and Mike Craven, former Group W Broadcasting execs and owners of Liberty Broadcasting, will work with the Voice Media management team on radio acquisition, promotion and content syndication opportunities to the broadcasting industry. Thompson and Craven are investors in the new company and will both serve on its board.

According to the New York Times, Stern had a pool of six potential buyers to choose from in early December. AAN News has learned that one of the six was New Times Inc., despite Stern’s assurance in a memo to his employees at the beginning of the process that “Under no circumstances will the company be sold to New Times.”

“That memo that was sent out, that was just smoke,” Michael Lacey, CEO of New Times, told AAN News. “We were among the final six bidders. We were involved right up until the end.”

Lacey doesn’t think Stern was using New Times’ bid to up the ante for other bidders. “I prefer to believe that [the parties comprising Voice Media] just did a better job at raising a lot of money,” he says.

Leonard Stern could not be reached for comment.

Lacey confesses that he always felt that New Times’ bid was a long shot. “I think that as long as David could put together his own group, it [made sense for him to buy it],” he says. “As long as you have continuity, it makes sense.”

Rumors of the New Times bid had an unsettling affect in Cleveland, where Stern’s Free Times employees speculated that their paper would be shuttered in favor of New Times’ Cleveland Scene if the bid was successful.

So when the news of the management-led buyout reached the shores of Lake Erie, the Cleveland Free Times staff breathed a collective sigh of relief. “This is the best case scenario as far as we’re concerned,” said new Editor-in-Chief Lisa Chamberlain. “We came into the office showing the victory sign this morning. For the first time in months, people came in [to work] very optimistic.”

That palpable sense of relief was also felt in New York by Village Voice employees, although the wizened staff there has a great deal more experience with this kind of thing. “You always prefer the devil you know than the devil you don’t,” says Voice popular music critic Robert Christgau, who welcomes the fifth new owner in his 30-year career at the paper. “There were people who thought [Schneiderman] would go with Stern [and leave the Voice], but I figured he loved newspapers too much.”

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