In Conference Call, Knight Ridder Execs Still Tight-Lipped

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By: Jennifer Saba

This afternoon marked the first time that Knight Ridder executives spoke publicly since the company announced in November that it was exploring a possible sale. The company had skipped December’s Media Week presentations in New York.

As expected, executives — including CFO Steve Rossi and senior vice presidents Hilary Schneider and Arthur Brisbane — were tight lipped about the company auction that has been taking place over the past several weeks.

During the fourth quarter earnings call with financial analysts and investors, Tony Ridder, Knight Ridder’s chairman and CEO, started the session instructing analysts that questions about the sale was off-limits: “We won’t be commenting on the process of seeking strategic options,” he said.

Though no one asked flat out about the process or potential buyers, some questions touched on the subject. One analyst wanted to know more details about the recent press reports that Knight Ridder executives discussed with bidders an additional $150 million in savings that could be reaped from the company.

Ridder responded that the number was related to ad revenue and what they were expecting in profit. “You should not get carried away with rumors that appear in non-Knight Ridder papers,” he said about the story, which first appeared in The Wall Street Journal last week.

Another analyst wanted to know how many senior managers the company lost since November’s announcement. Two have left Knight Ridder — the CEO of Fort Wayne Newspapers, Mary Jacobus, who is now at The Boston Globe; and the head of the company’s tax department.

Because the company is on the block, Knight Ridder has suspended its plans to repurchase up to 10 million shares of its stock and has frozen any acquisition activity.

Knight Ridder announced in November that it was exploring a sale after intense shareholder pressure from its top institutional investor Private Capital Management. Several newspapers companies have been mentioned as possible bidders including McClatchy, Gannett, and MediaNews Group in addition to private equity players like Texas Pacific Group, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, and the Blackstone Group.

The Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America has also hired financial advisors who are looking for outside investors to buy some Knight Ridder properties.

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