It was apparent after the acquisition of The Washington Post by Jeff Bezos that print industry acquisitions are becoming more associated with vanity motives than making money. What may be surprising to some is that this appears to be the case with financial media as well.
The most visible case to make this point is Forbes Media being put up for sale with a reported price tag between $400 million and $500 million.
Brand or business
One interesting part of the print media narrative is whether a particular property has more value as a brand than it does as a business. The answer depends on what the purpose would be for the person owning it.
If someone wants to influence others and be considered a mover and shaker, the brand aspect of the company would be most valuable. If the goal is to grow and profit, it is the business side that would be the most valuable to the owner.
In print media, including financial print, it's becoming harder to be seen as a growth segment of the market. This is true even if there are ancillary TV or digital properties that are part of the brand.
With Forbes Media, it looks like the only way it could convince someone to pay the price being asked is to position itself as a digital company in the mind of the perspective buyer. Very few people would pay the asking price if it is based on the print side of the company. Even a vanity buyer would hesitate to pay that high of a price unless that person or company had very deep pockets.
Another possible buyer profile would be someone from outside the United States who wants to wants to make a name for themselves by having the Forbes name associated with them. That may convince that person or entity that it's worth the premium asking price.
As a stand-alone business, however, it's hard to see the value of the company being in the $400 million to $500 million range. It seems that the asking price is at the very top end of what it might be worth, and there are no catalysts to suggest Forbes Media is a growth company. Growth prospects are dim in light of the print and digital global ad market.
The financial media space is a very crowded one, one that Forbes has been one of the leaders in for decades. Now that the company is being put up for sale, it underscores the fact no traditional media company is safe, even though it eventually incorporates a digital strategy into its business model.
What happened is new digital competitors emerged that won customers using computers and other digital devices as their primary means of accessing information. By the time Forbes and other financial media companies responded, they not only lost customers, but struggled to build their Internet brand against already-branded digital properties.
According to Stewart Pinkerton, the man who wrote "The Fall of the House of Forbes" in 2011, a foreign investor will likely grab Forbes, based upon the emotional connection associated with the billionaires that are ranked annually.
Another potential suitor named is Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX ) Time. That assumption comes from Time executives being seen visiting Forbes headquarters just before the matter went public.
If Forbes were sold to a company like Time, it would probably be built even further digitally, while possibly taking on some of the elements of Time. As for a wealthy vanity buyer, specifically a foreign one, we could see Forbes develop into more of a sensational outlet, or possibly include more focus on international business.
Forbes competitor Bloomberg sees the $400 million to $500 million asking price as very unrealistic. It says $200 million may be the top price Forbes is able to garner in a sale.
My thought is it will depend on the buyer and how badly the person or company wants it. Here's where the vanity play comes in. If it is a vanity acquisition, the Forbes company will be bought more for its brand and name value than for its profit value.
Other media companies will watch this closely because there is likely to be an increasing number of traditional media businesses being put up for sale in the near future. With the recent high price paid by Jeff Bezos for The Washington Post, another significant price would help bolster near-term future sales. Further out I don't see this as having much impact.
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