Lee Enterprises rejects takeover bid from Alden hedge fund

FILE - A pressman grabs a freshly printed paper off the press at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's printing facility in Maryland Heights, Mo. in this Nov. 11, 2008 file photo. Newspaper publisher Lee Enterprises has rejected a takeover offer from the Alden Global Capital hedge fund that is one of the largest newspaper owners in the country with a reputation for intense cost cuts and layoffs. Lee said Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021 that its board unanimously rejected Aldens offer to buy the company for $24 per share or about $141 million because it grossly undervalues Lee. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File) (Jeff Roberson, AP2008)

Newspaper publisher Lee Enterprises has rejected a takeover offer from the Alden Global Capital hedge fund that is one of the largest newspaper owners in the country with a reputation for intense cost cuts and layoffs, but the fight over the company's future is likely far from over.

Lee said Thursday that its board unanimously rejected Alden's offer to buy the company for $24 per share or about $141 million because it isn't in the best interests of shareholders. Also Thursday, Lee reported a $5.3 million fiscal fourth-quarter profit this year, rebounding from a $1.3 million loss a year ago, as the number of digital-only subscribers at the company grew 65% to 402,000.

“The Alden proposal grossly undervalues Lee and fails to recognize the strength of our business today, as the fastest-growing digital subscription platform in local media, and our compelling future prospects,” Lee Chairman Mary Junck said.

But Ken Doctor, a longtime media analyst who now runs a local online journalism startup called Lookout Santa Cruz in California, said Alden isn't likely to abandon its bid to acquire Lee because it believes it can extract profits from the company with the model it has used elsewhere that calls for selling off the real estate the chain owns and drastically cutting costs.

“What Alden has done -- and it’s now pretty proven community to community -- it’s harvesting the last profits out of the newspaper business and it is doing that unapologetically,” Doctor said.

Alden said last month when it made its offer that it already owned more than 6% of Lee's stock. The New York-based hedge fund didn't immediately respond to Lee Thursday.

Steve Waldman, president of Report for America, an organization that places journalists in local newsrooms, including The Associated Press, said Alden’s approach to running newspapers takes a heavy toll on the communities they cover because of the newsroom cuts. Alden and other hedge funds already own half the daily newspaper circulation in the country, he said.

“When newspapers have their reporting staffs eviscerated, it means that governments aren’t held accountable, corruption goes up, waste goes up, voter turnout goes down, residents don’t have the basic information they need to solve the problems of their communities,” Waldman said.

Even if Lee succeeds at turning away Alden, it will likely face pressure to sell itself to someone else in the next couple of years or find a suitor willing to take the company private.

In that regard, Lee might be able to get assistance from its biggest financier, Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, which has held Lee’s $483 million in debt since Berkshire decided to sell its newspaper chain to Lee in 2020. At the time, Buffett praised Lee as the best steward for its papers. Buffett did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

The newspaper industry has been struggling with shrinking revenue as it transitions to digital publication, and the pandemic only intensified those stresses. Pew Research has estimated that nearly half of all newsroom jobs were eliminated between 2004 and 2018 as newspapers consolidated or closed. About one-fourth of the country’s newspapers have closed in the past 15 years, according to research from the University of North Carolina.

But earlier this week, Lee received support from its second-largest shareholder, Praetorian Capital which holds 7.3% of Lee’s stock. Investment manager Harris Kupperman said in a letter to Lee’s board Wednesday that he believes the company’s stock is worth at least $100 apiece — well above Alden’s opportunistic offer.

“The only reason that the shares trade where they do, is that investors have yet to realize that while the traditional print newspaper business slowly declines, the digital business has been growing rapidly, becoming an increasingly substantial percentage of the total business,” Kupperman wrote.

After Alden made its unsolicited bid, Lee adopted a “poison-pill” plan that would make it more expensive for Alden to buy up Lee’s shares once it owns more than 10% of the company. Lee also rebuffed Alden's attempt to nominate three new directors to the company's board.

If Alden does acquire 10% of the shares, the shareholder rights plan that the Davenport, Iowa-based company adopted would allow its other shareholders to buy shares at a 50% discount at that point or possibly get free shares for every share they already own.

Lee owns the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Buffalo News and dozens of other newspapers including nearly every daily newspaper in Nebraska. Unions at those papers have urged Lee to fight off Alden's advances because of concerns about what the hedge fund would do.

“We must remain vigilant — this offer won’t be the assassin’s last. Alden not only grossly undervalues journalism, it grossly undermines it,” the union that represents Lee's journalists at the Omaha World-Herald tweeted Thursday.

Alden has scooped up newspapers across the country through a series of acquisitions in recent years, including the purchase of Tribune's papers earlier this year. Alden also owns the Denver Post, Orange County Register and Boston Herald.

Lee's stock gained 11% Thursday to close at $27.70 — nearly $4 above what Alden offered.