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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Aug. 10, 201708:40 AM EST

Updated: Times-Union part of $120 million sale of Morris newspapers

Buyer New Media Investment Group owns 130 papers in 36 states.

New Media Investment Group Inc.announced an agreement Wednesday to buy the newspapers owned by Morris Publishing Group LLC, including The Florida Times-Union and St. Augustine Record, for $120 million.

Morris Publishing Group, which is privately held, did not disclose terms of the deal, but New Media Investment Group announced the $120 million price in a news release. The sale is set to close Oct. 2.

Times-Union staff members were told about the purchase Wednesday morning. While few details about personnel were announced, the newspaper reported that Times-Union Media President Mark Nusbaum will continue as publisher.

Mark Nusbaum was named president of Times-Union Media in 2012.

The Morris family will retain ownership of the 50-year-old Florida Times-Union building and 18.8 acres of property at 1 Riverside Ave. along the St. Johns River near Downtown. The property was offered for sale in June 2016, but did not specify a price.

“The family is currently exploring options for development of the site for mixed use, including offices, a hotel or multifamily housing,” the Morris Communications release said.

Circulation down

New York-based New Media reported the Times-Union is the largest of the 11 dailies it will buy from Morris with a daily circulation of 44,750 and Sunday circulation of 68,591.

That appears to be a large circulation decline from last year.

Nusbaum told the JAXUSA Partnership division of JAX Chamber in June 2016 that circulation, the historical measure of a newspaper’s readership, was about 70,000 daily and 100,000 on Sunday.

The peak Sunday circulation was more than double that.

Nusbaum also said employment peaked at about 1,000 in the last decade and was about 330 as of June 2016. He was not immediately available Wednesday to provide the current count.

Much readership has moved online.

He said readership topped 1 million reached on Sunday, through the newspaper, website, social media and niche products.

The company has survived challenges in the rapidly changing media industry, including layoffs.

Augusta, Georgia-based Morris Publishing Group filed a pre-packaged Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in 2010 with $415 million in debt but quickly emerged, cutting debt to $107 million. Most of the creditors had agreed to terms in advance. Nusbaum said in June the company had no debt.

Changes continued. In December, the company announced that the Times-Union and St. Augustine Record page design, some copy editing and production would be moved to Augusta, eliminating 15 jobs in Jacksonville.

City Council President Anna Lopez Brosche said Wednesday afternoon that she hadn’t been aware of the impending sale but knows there is change in the newspaper world.

“Our media across the board plays an important role in the community and the Florida Times-Union is a big part of the fabric of how the community connects to what is happening, and I certainly hope this new ownership has a positive impact maintaining the role for the media in our community,” she said.

Other community leaders did not respond to questions about the sale’s impact on the community.

The publication has taken an advocacy role with its quarterly J, a magazine about the rebirth of Downtown produced by the editorial page staff, not the newsroom.

‘An incredible collection’

Michael E. Reed, president and CEO of New Media, said in its release that the Morris family built and operated “an incredible collection of local media assets” over more than 80 years.

He said the acquisition expands its footprint into new states “and add some very attractive markets to our local media portfolio.”

New Media sees “strong synergies between our two companies,” Reed said.

Morris Communications said Moorgate Securities and Avondale Communications acted as financial advisers to Morris Publishing Group in the deal.

“Every newspaper company in America is battling trends and redirected advertising dollars, so it is necessary for newspapers to be part of a large newspaper group to build and maintain the necessary resources to compete,” said Morris Communications Chairman Williams S. “Billy” Morris III in the release.

New Media is buying much of the Morris portfolio of newspaper assets in six states as well as the acquisition of Morris’s Main Street Digital group, substantially all weekly and niche print products and all related websites and digital operations.

The sale includes The Augusta Chronicle (circulation of 26,862 daily and 31,682 Sunday) and the Savannah Morning News (21,588 daily and 26,048 Sunday).

Billy Morris will continue as publisher of The Augusta Chronicle and will oversee editorial page policy for the three Morris newspapers in Georgia.

Morris Communications said the sale included its Lubbock, Texas-based commercial printing operation.

“The sale is part of the company’s strategic restructuring to focus its business on lifestyle and niche publications, broadband operations, property development and new business,” Morris Communications said in its release.

Other daily papers included in the sale are The Topeka Capital-Journal in Kansas, Athens Banner-Herald in Georgia, the Amarillo Globe-News and Lubbock Avalanche-Journal in Texas, the Conway Log Cabin Democrat in Arkansas and the Juneau Empire and Kenai Peninsula Clarion in Alaska.

New Media is a publicly traded company formed in 2013 by assuming control of GateHouse Media Inc.

The company said the price for Morris Publishing Group falls in line with its strategy of paying 3.5 to 4.5 times the seller’s adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization.

New Media said it publishes 125 daily publications and operates in more than 555 markets in 36 states. Its portfolio includes more than 630 community publications and more than 550 websites.

Morris Communications announced that it sold the assets to GateHouse Media Inc., whose parent company is New Media. GateHouse Media LLC is based in Pittsford, New York.

According to its website, GateHouse publishes nine daily newspapers in Florida, including The Daytona Beach News- Journal, The Gainesville Sun, Panama City News Herald, Northwest Florida Daily News, Ocala StarBanner, Leesburg Daily Commercial, The Ledger in Lakeland, the News Chief in Winter Haven and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Times-Union history

The Times-Union was formed in 1883. It was 100 years later that Morris bought Florida Publishing Co., then publisher of the Times-Union, St. Augustine Record and the afternoon Jacksonville Journal, from what is now CSX Corp.

Morris ended the Journal publication in 1988.

The Times-Union Alumni Group Facebook page outlined a history of the Morris ownership.

The publishers and leaders played large roles in Jacksonville’s business community.

Morris bought the Times-Union at the end of 1982. Billy Morris became publisher and James Whyte was named president and general manager on Jan 1, 1983.

Carl Cannon became publisher in January 1990 after Whyte’s retirement. Cannon retired in 2007.

James Currow became interim publisher, publisher and executive vice president until 2011 when Derek May was named executive vice president of Morris Publishing Group.

Lucy Talley became associate publisher in 2008 and became the company’s first female publisher in March 2009. She left after three years for a position with Hearst Newspapers.

In 2012 Nusbaum was named president of Times-Union Media.

Morris Communications reported Wednesday that as part of the restructuring Morris Publishing Group magazines will be managed under Morris Media Network.

May will become chief operating officer of the newly restructured company.

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