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Who wants Time Inc?

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

It’s been an eventful few years at 94-year-old legacy media giant Time Inc., marked by five CEOs in the past five years, and a nine-month period in 2011 with no CEO. In July, the publisher reorganized its magazine brands into four editorial groups. This month, it reorganized on the digital side, breaking down walls to create a “shared digital newsroom” with 10 cross-title desks.

Now Time Inc. (TIME) has hired Morgan Stanley and Bank of America to “help field takeover or partnership interest,” the Wall Street Journal reports. Time Inc shares popped 10% on the news.

This news comes after the company rejected a takeover offer of $18 per share ($1.8 billion at the time) in November from Edgar Bronfman, Len Blavatnik and other billionaires associated with Warner Music Group, according to the New York Post.

And earlier this week came additional reports that Hearst is interested in buying some Time Inc. titles piecemeal (Cooking Light, InStyle, and Real Simple, in particular), and that Meredith Corp. is interested in bidding for the full company.

It sure looks like the company could be up for sale, though not officially. A spokesperson says that Time Inc. “does not comment on speculation about such matters.” At the very least, Time Inc. appears to be actively considering offers.

So: Who might want to bid?

Then-CEO Joe Ripp at Time Inc public offering at the NYSE. (Reuters)

Time Inc. owns 100 magazine brands, with the best-known being People, Sports Illustrated, Time, Fortune, Money, InStyle, Entertainment Weekly, Travel + Leisure, Food & Wine, Essence, and Real Simple. But the company has struggled to grow since spinning off from parent Time Warner two years ago into its own public entity. The stock was down 19% so far this year until it jumped last month on news of the Bronfman offer; it’s down 18% since it went public. In its 2016 third-quarter earnings report, a rise in digital ad sales was offset by continuing revenue declines in print and subscriptions; it cut its forecast for the year.

Despite its problems, many of Time Inc.’s magazine titles are globally respected brands with rich history. Time, Fortune, People and Sports Illustrated consistently get access to the biggest names in their coverage area.

In its effort to court digital advertisers and evolve from its reputation as a print dinosaur, Time Inc. has made a number of quirky acquisitions in the last two years, buying Zooey Deschanel’s lifestyle site Hello Giggles, MySpace parent company Viant, and sports blog FanSided, as well as launching a breakfast website called Extra Crispy.

Different properties at Time Inc. could interest different buyers. But the company may not wish to split up its titles and sell them a la carte.

That’s what interests Hearst, according to reports—buying some of the magazine titles, but not the whole company. And that’s what interested Meredith three years ago, before Time Inc. spun off, when Time Warner came very close to a deal to sell the Time Inc. magazines to Meredith., which owns more than 20 magazines and 15 television stations. The problem: the Iowa-based publisher of titles like Family Circle and Better Homes and Gardens wanted to buy softer titles like InStyle and Real Simple (the same titles Hearst reportedly wants) but not the hard news brands Time, Fortune and Sports Illustrated.

The deal fell through and Time Inc. soldiered out on its own. Now Meredith may be sniffing around again, according to the New York Post, which reports that insiders say Meredith is preparing its own bid. It’s unclear if that bid would be for the full company or just some of the magazine titles, but it would be ironic if Meredith ends up getting what it wanted in 2013, three years later.

There’s a long history between Time Inc. and Meredith. In 2011, after the departure of CEO Ann Moore, Time Inc. hired Meredith executive Jack Griffin to be its new chief. He lasted less than six months, and for most of 2011 there was no CEO, as Time Inc. undertook a nine-month search. The next CEO, Laura Lang, lasted 15 months. Her replacement, Joe Ripp (a past Time Warner exec) steered the company through its spinoff and stepped down in September, succeeded by new CEO Rich Battista.

Another publisher that might be interested in the same titles that Hearst and Meredith like is Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, owned by Sequential Brands Group, which also owns fashion labels like William Rast, And1, Caribbean Joe, Heelys, Jessica Simpson’s brand, and Emeril Lagasse’s brand.

German publisher Axel Springer could be another contender. It has ramped up its spending on digital media, buying Business Insider last year and making significant investments into outlets like Mic, Ozy, NowThis News, and Thrillist.

Then there are private equity possibilities. Earlier this year, Time Inc. quietly sold a 5% stake to activist investor Jana Partners, and Bloomberg reported in September that Jana was behind the replacement of Ripp. The New York Post reported that Jana is “pushing a consolidation thesis” and that in a meeting with Time Inc., Jana “brought up the average age of Time Inc. board members.” But now the Post reports, in its story about interest from Meredith, that “private equity isn’t going to get this.”

Perhaps no one will “get” it; Time Inc. is not confirming that there is any active sale process going on. It has fielded offers, and it has brought on bankers to help review those offers. And its reported rejection of a $1.8 billion offer from Bronfman suggests that it’s reluctant to sell.

But given the current stormy weather in print media, Time Inc. may change its tune.

Disclosure: The author worked at Fortune, a Time Inc. title, before joining Yahoo.

Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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