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Landmark takes papers off market

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By The Staff

Landmark Media Enterprises LLC, citing the credit crisis, announced Wednesday that it has taken most of its properties, including The Lancaster News, off the market. But the company is continuing negotiations to sell its flagship paper, The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk.

"We are having discussions regarding The Virginian-Pilot Media Companies with an interested buyer," Landmark's vice chairman, Richard F. Barry III, said Wednesday. "The buyer is encouraged about obtaining financing."

He declined to identify the prospective buyer or say when he expected the sale of The Virginian-Pilot to be completed. The Virginian-Pilot and its affiliates employ about 1,260 people.

Barry said Norfolk-based Landmark still is talking to potential buyers for two other properties, but he would not identify the properties.

"We had strong interest from buyers for all of our properties," he said, "but the credit markets impeded their getting financing."

The Lancaster News is part of Landmark's community newspaper division, which is based in Shelbyville, Ky.

This division has 54 paid newspapers in 13 states, 40 free newspapers and shoppers, 16 offset commercial printing plants, seven collegiate sports publications and 30 special publications such as real estate guides and homes magazines.

Landmark owns four newspapers in South Carolina – The Lancaster News, Carolina Gateway, The (Chester) News & Reporter and the Progressive Journal in Pageland.

"This announcement allows us to focus on our mission to continually improve our products for our readers and advertisers," said Susan Rowell, publisher of The Lancaster News. "We realize a sale is in our future, but now we don't have to delay implementing new ideas."

In a statement, Landmark's chairman and chief executive officer, Frank Batten Jr., said: "The credit crisis has made it virtually impossible for companies to obtain bank commitments to help finance acquisitions. And the recession has reduced revenue and earnings and made it very difficult to value a business."

Batten said Landmark will continue to operate most of its businesses "for several years before reinstituting the sales process," but it will consider offers in the interim.

Newspaper-industry analyst John Morton said he wasn't surprised that Landmark was dropping its plans to sell most of its businesses. He noted that other newspapers remain on the market, including most of Cox Enterprises' publications and the San Diego Union-Tribune.

"The market is awash in sellers and no buyers," said Morton, who is based in Silver Spring, Md. "Right now it's the credit, but it wasn't happening before the credit tied up. People are very leery. They're not sure what they should pay or how well the newspapers are going to come out of the recession they've been in."

Facing steep market declines in advertising revenue and circulation, newspapers have lost more than half of their value since 2002, he said.

Landmark officials announced in January that they were looking to sell all of the businesses owned by the privately held media company. They did not offer a reason.

In September, Landmark completed the sale of its most profitable business, The Weather Channel Cos., to NBC Universal and two private-equity firms. The sale price was not disclosed, but people close to the parties said it was about $3.5 billion.

Two weeks ago, however, Landmark announced that the planned sale of its Nashville television station to Bonten Media Group Inc. of New York had fallen through because of credit-market problems.

Landmark's businesses, minus The Weather Channel Cos., have combined revenues exceeding $1 billion a year, Barry said.

In conjunction with the suspension of the sales process, Landmark announced the retirements of three executives.

Decker Anstrom, the president and chief operating officer, will leave by the end of the year. Bruce Bradley, the president of the Landmark Publishing Group, and Charlie Hill, executive vice president for human resources, will retire on Nov. 14.

All said the timing was right to make way for the next generation of leaders.

Anstrom, 58, who joined Landmark in 1999 as president of The Weather Channel, said he plans to move to Washington with his wife and "return to my first love – the nonprofit or public sector."

Bradley, 58, said he had planned to retire in his late 50s or early 60s. He started at Landmark in 1974 as an advertising salesman. Bradley said he will teach a class in leadership next semester at Old Dominion University's College of Business and Public Administration and was not sure of other plans.

Hill, 64, joined Landmark in 1991. A prostate cancer survivor, he said he would expand his nonprofit work with the Hampton Roads Prostate Health Forum, which encourages education, screenings and research, and the Crispus Attucks Cultural Center, which provides arts programs for students at the Attucks Theatre in Norfolk.

Batten will remain chairman and CEO of Landmark and Barry vice chairman. Anstrom's position will not be filled, Barry said, because Landmark "is not as large a company as it once was."

Michael Abernathy, the president of Landmark Community Newspapers Inc., will succeed Bradley as president of Landmark Publishing Group, which oversees The Pilot, three other daily newspapers in Roanoke, Greensboro, N.C., and Annapolis, Md., and more than 70 other publications. Abernathy will continue to be based in Kentucky.

A successor to Hill has not been named, Barry said.

The Lancaster News staff contributed to this article.