COMMENT: Potential buyers for assets of Stuff Ltd – the website, newspaper and digital business owner – have moved from the tyre-kicking phase into more formal examination of the company’s business units and their performance.

Interested parties had registered and then had the benefit of an Information Memorandum setting out what is for sale and the prospects for the various news and other ventures Stuff owns.

Investment bank Macquarie is running the process and it is understood those who want to take their interest beyond the first round are now into a formal process of seeking detailed information from a Stuff Ltd ‘dataroom’ and conducting due diligence.

The identities of potential bidders for all or parts of the business are tightly held and, as is normal, all have had to sign non disclosure and confidentiality agreements.

Newsroom understands New Zealand-based interest has almost exclusively focused on Stuff’s digital assets – which include the Neighbourly website and Stuff Fibre, as well as the website, the country’s biggest news site. Some local investors have not wanted to take on the big print newspaper businesses that sit in behind, and integrated with, the website, which makes their potential bids problematic.

One of the few business people to express an interest publicly, some time ago, was the National Business Review publisher Todd Scott, who also talked up his interest in the successful and valuable Australian Financial Review newspaper and site, which dwarfs his own enterprise and is not publicly for sale. In any case, NBR’s own challenges might have curtailed Scott’s grand ambitions.

Another to express interest in how the Stuff Ltd sale would progress was Kevin Kenrick, chief executive of the state-owned TVNZ but a spokeswoman said on Tuesday: “We won’t be commenting on the Stuff sale.” 

At least one New Zealand non-media digital business has also looked at what Stuff has on offer.

BusinessDesk reported in February that in its first reporting period as a subsidiary of Nine, Stuff reported earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation of A$14.5 million ($15.1m) in the six months ended December 31, compared to A$18.9m a year earlier.

The 23 percent decline compared to a 14 percent slide in revenue to A$126m, where Stuff’s print advertising slumped 21 per cent to A$55.8m, while its circulation revenue of A$43.1m was down just 4 per cent. Stuff’s digital revenue – which has been a cornerstone strategy under local chief Sinead Boucher – reported flat revenue of A$22.1m.

Stuff was already a laggard among Fairfax Media Group’s units before it merged with Nine late last year, and was never seen as a cosy fit in the enlarged Australian media group, BusinessDesk said.

Increasingly the word from across the Tasman, where Stuff’s owner Nine Entertainment is based, is the New Zealand business could end up being offered at a bargain price to whomever ends up buying Nine’s Australian Community Media division, which is home for the old Fairfax regional newspaper titles. A kind-of two for the price of one deal.

Two names have emerged as frontrunners for that business: Anchorage Capital and interests behind Antony Catalano, a former top Fairfax executive credited with developing its Domain real estate business into a substantial and profitable digital entity.

One source aware of investment pitches for New Zealand media across the Tasman told Newsroom the Stuff sale might also have sparked interest in its publishing and digital rival NZME. The owner of the New Zealand Herald and almost half the commercial radio market “is in the crosshairs” as investors draw up new groupings of assets.

NZME itself had hinted in its 2018 financial result briefing that it could be open to considering additional media assets in the upcoming carve-up. Its low share price, at 54c at lunchtime Tuesday, still has its total sharemarket capitalisation at $105m. Could the hunter yet be among the prey?

Drivetime loses its driver

Larry Williams’ departure next week from his drivetime slot on NewstalkZB is the final move in a refresh of the number one station’s hosts – with changes this year right across the day. Leighton Smith’s retirement was signalled a year ago and Kerre Woodham took his morning chair in January.  Still coming, after what seems like a radio lifetime since it was announced, are Simon Barnett from MoreFM in Christchurch with Phil Gifford to ZB‘s afternoon slot in mid-year*.

And now Larry, after 27 years at the station, is off in just a week to tour Europe.

Newstalk would have been in talks with potential replacements this year but might have missed its primary targets. It did not announce Williams’ successor, saying the big reveal was expected “in coming weeks”. In a statement on its website it said Williams had tried to retire as long ago as two years ago, so it has had plenty of time to find the next voice of the evening ride home.

The next commercial radio ratings survey is released on the day Williams signs off, next Thursday.

Given the prominence of the show and the audience Williams bequeathes a new host, Newstalk normally wouldn’t be afraid to pay up for a name broadcaster on a long contract. But who is available, not a leftie and fits the bill?

From its own stable, it is believed a leading contender could be Heather du Plessis-Allan, now minding the morning regional show on ZB out of Wellington. She has been forthright and controversial (the Broadcasting Standards Authority just called her out on comments about the Pacific leeching off New Zealand) and might fit the centre-right tone Williams and others have tended for so long.

Media Awards

Newsroom is a finalist with, and TheSpinoffTV for Website of the Year at the Voyager Media Awards next month. Newsroom shared the top award in 2018, with Stuff, in just our first year and is delighted to be nominated again in such exalted company.

Newsroom is in contention for 10 separate categories, including as a finalist for Best Team Investigation for our revelations on the sexual assaults and harassment within major law firm Russell McVeagh.

Our science editor, Eloise Gibson, is a finalist in three awards categories – science reporting, Best Single Story and Best Individual Investigation – for her inquiry last year into the products and promises of former New Zealander of the Year Ray Avery.

Five others of our team, Melanie Reid, Sam Sachdeva, David Williams, Farah Hancock and Thomas Coughlan are finalists in reporting and editing categories and former staffer Teuila Fuatai is nominated in the category for feature writing on crime and social issues.

The full list of finalists is here.

* An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Simon Barnett would be joined by his former Christchurch co-host on More FM, Gary McCormick, on the ZB afternoon show. His new partner will, of course, be the wonderful Phil Gifford. Apologies.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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