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Providence Journal up for sale

Another New England news institution is on the block, after the owner of the Providence Journal said Wednesday it is exploring a sale of the nation’s oldest continuously published daily newspaper.

The A.H. Belo Corp., the Texas firm that also owns The Dallas Morning News, has hired a financial services firm to solicit offers for the 184-year-old Journal, Rhode Island’s leading news publication. The company noted that it will sell the Journal only if it can find an appropriate buyer willing to pay a satisfactory price.

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The Providence paper joins the Worcester Telegram & Gazette in being for sale at a time when the news industry continues to struggle with the loss of advertising for print products, and the rise of digital media competitors.

Other changes are also sweeping the media landscape in New England. The Cape Cod Times and the Standard-Times of New Bedford, along with several dozen smaller papers, were recently sold to GateHouse Media Inc., which itself just emerged from a bankruptcy reorganization to restructure $1.2 billion of debt.

Recent sales of other prominent newspapers suggest that Belo will get far less than what it paid for the Providence Journal 16 years ago, reflecting a broad devaluing of legacy media outlets in the digital information age.

In October, Boston Red Sox principal owner John W. Henry bought the New England Media Group, which included The Boston Globe and the Worcester paper, from the New York Times Co. for $70 million. The Times Co. paid $1.1 billion for the Globe alone in 1993. In November, Henry said he would try to sell the Telegram to a locally based group in order to concentrate on running the Globe.

Also in October, the Graham family sold The Washington Post after four generations of ownership to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos for $250 million.

Providence Journal reporter John Hill said Belo’s decision came as no surprise.

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Meanwhile, the social media site Tumblr sold for $1.1 billion to Yahoo in June. The valuation of digital media companies at large sums that once belonged to major papers like the Post and Globe crystallized a significant shift on the media landscape.

“The trend is fairly well formed,” said Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla. “We had newspaper properties at the very worst, during the height of the recession, losing advertising revenue and they couldn’t be sold at all. The situation has improved now, to the extent that some buyers are stepping up and taking a civic value approach.”

In 1997, Belo purchased the paper and nine television stations owned by the then-Providence Journal Co. for $1.5 billion. Belo later created a separate company for its TV properties, and now is shopping only the newspaper.

Media appraiser Kevin B. Kamen, president of Kamen & Co. Group Services in Uniondale, N.Y., estimated the Journal’s value at $41 million.

“This is an elevator going down, down, down, and it’s unfortunate because it’s a quality paper,” Kamen said.

Belo issued a statement saying that selling the Journal would generate cash to help it concentrate on the Dallas market, a new priority the company outlined after its third-quarter earnings release.

“The Providence Journal is an important financial contributor to our company, and the newspaper’s commitment to the citizens of Providence and Rhode Island is unmatched,” Belo chief executive Jim Moroney said in the statement. “However, with A. H. Belo’s focus on investing and growing in Dallas, it makes sense to explore this opportunity.”

Providence Journal reporter John Hill, who heads the newspaper’s union, said Belo’s decision came as no surprise, as just two months ago it announced the $27 million sale of another daily in its portfolio, The Press-Enterprise of Riverside, Calif. Hill described the mood in the newsroom after a staff meeting with publisher Howard G. Sutton as uncertain, but hopeful that a buyer committed to quality journalism will emerge.

“Unfortunately, within the newspaper business, uncertainty is normal,” Hill said. “But there’s also an opportunity here. I would compare it to the Globe’s situation: Does someone come out from Rhode Island and see it as the civic institution that we think it is, and care about more than the dollars-and-cents bottom line? That’s what we’re hoping for.”

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.
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