In a move aimed at strengthening its regional business, The Baltimore Sun Co. announced yesterday plans to buy Patuxent Publishing Co., a Columbia-based publisher of weekly newspapers and other publications.
Patuxent publishes 13 weekly papers in Howard and Baltimore counties, including the Columbia Flier, the Jeffersonian and the Northeast Times Reporter. It also publishes seven community telephone directories and two magazines, concentrated in Howard and Carroll counties. Combined, Patuxent publications have an average circulation of more than 250,000 a week. By comparison, The Sun's average daily circulation is 321,000, and 484,000 on Sundays.
"I think it's a good fit," said Mary E. Junck, publisher and chief executive officer of The Baltimore Sun Co., a subsidiary of the Los Angeles-based Times Mirror Co. that publishes The Sun.
"Their product is very distinguished, with a long history of distinctive journalism," Junck said. "Culturally, they have stood for the same things The Sun has: High quality, service to readers and service to advertisers."
Although neither side would reveal terms of the deal, sources put Patuxent's value at between $45 million and $50 million.
The sale of the chain came as little surprise to newspaper analysts, who noted that so-called newspaper "clustering" has become a widespread practice, especially among major metropolitan dailies eager to shore up readership, increase advertising and brighten circulation figures.
Analysts said the acquisition makes sense.
"The Sun has taken steps to broaden itself with zoned editions, but the Patuxent properties reach much deeper into their communities," said John Morton, head of Morton Research Inc., a Silver Spring-based newspaper research firm.
"It's a deepening of their approach. It also provides the opportunity to sell advertising on a regional basis, which is important these days because most large advertisers are national retailers."
'Strengthen the franchise'
"Newspaper companies today embrace clustering because it provides natural opportunities to combine advertising and other functions," said John Sturm, president and chief executive of the Newspaper Association of America, a Virginia-based trade organization. "All across the country, large newspapers are looking at nearby community publications because they strengthen the franchise that's already in place."
Not surprisingly, local publishing companies competing with Patuxent and The Baltimore Sun Co. voiced concern over the prospect of further consolidation within the local market.
"It seems to me this acquisition will substantially lessen competition," said Philip Merrill, chairman of Capital-Gazette Communications Inc., publisher of the Capital, the Maryland Gazette, Washingtonian magazine and other papers. "It's a move by Times Mirror to control the pricing of advertising."
"Communities are much better served by local ownership than by media giants headquartered in Los Angeles," he added. "This purchase is contrary to 100 years of antitrust policy."
The sale, contingent upon approval from the federal government, is expected to close by the end of next month, Junck said. The U.S. Department of Justice, which oversees antitrust matters, reviews newspaper mergers or acquisitions valued over $15 million, a department spokeswoman said.
Neither The Baltimore Sun Co., Patuxent executives nor analysts said they expect any resistance from the Justice Department, because of the differences in the two publishers' products and because of increased competition from the Internet.
Patuxent's operations will be folded into The Baltimore Sun Co.'s community newspaper division, which publishes the Aegis and other Harford County papers. Significant changes are not anticipated, and there are no plans to reduce Patuxent's staff of 350 employees. The Sun's zoned editions for Howard, Carroll and Anne Arundel counties won't be affected, Junck said.
"There are things that I want for Patuxent, and I didn't want to see just anyone buy it," said S. Zeke Orlinsky, Patuxent's president and publisher. "This has been, after all, my life's work. The Sun's acquisition ensures our independence and gives our employees enormous opportunities for growth that I just couldn't provide at this point."
Orlinsky, who turned 55 on Monday, will remain at Patuxent through the end of the year and then become a consultant to The Baltimore Sun Co.
Patuxent's largest newspapers are the Towson Times, Owings Mills Times and Columbia Flier, all free publications that have average circulations of more than 40,000 a week.
The company's flagship is the Columbia Flier, the community paper that Orlinsky began Patuxent with in 1969.