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Who Are Those Guys?

Those Fools who have attained or are approaching geezer status -- certainly including yours truly -- will remember that wonderful 1969 flick, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In it, Butch (Paul Newman) and Sundance (Robert Redford) are pursued by a relentless posse. Each time the pair looks back to see the posse still tailing them, they utter the now nearly immortal line, "Who are those guys?"

It wouldn't be surprising if those words are now ricocheting throughout the halls of New York Times (NYSE: NYT  ) . It seems that Harbinger Capital Partners, the company's largest public shareholder, has upped its stake in Times Class A common stock to 28.3 million shares, or about 19.8% of the total. That's an amount equal to the company's controlling family, the Ochs-Sulzbergers, although Times' dual class stock structure accords the family voting control that Harbinger can't match.

Based on Friday's closing price, the firm has a stake worth more than $520 million. Which probably has Times Chairman Arthur Sulzberger and his clan intoning something like, "Who are those guys, and what do they want?"

Harbinger already has succeeded in getting Times to support a pair of its nominees to the company's board. But beyond that, if the objective is ultimately a takeover of the Gray Lady's parent, it's logical to question why anyone would want the venerable -- but listing -- journalistic icon.

After all, Times' shares are down almost 60% in the past five years, and even though they've rebounded about 30% from their low earlier just this year, the outlook remains bleak. As the Newspaper Association of America reported late last week, newspaper print ad revenues plunged 9.4% last year. Classified ads were down by 17%, while real estate ads plummeted by 23%.

As a result, while Times' shares have been buoyed by Harbinger's attention, Gannett (NYSE: GCI  ) and Lee (NYSE: LEE  ) have seen their share prices each decline by a quarter just this year, while McClatchy's (NYSE: MNI  ) shares have given up about 15%, and Media General (NYSE: MEG  ) is down about 34%. That's fully a third, where I went to school.

So while Harbinger may have something up its sleeve for Times, here's hoping that Fools will not view the company's recent share price improvement as an opportunity to ride a big wave. Given the company's industry, that wave will eventually break, possibly catching Foolish investment funds in its undertow.

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