A Weather Window
Friday, January 11, 2008
At a reunion of former Associated Press chairmen last summer at the Virginia Beach home of Frank Batten, the octogenarian Landmark Communications media mogul peppered his guests with questions about the sorry state of the newspaper industry.
Not once did he let on that anything big could be brewing at the closely held, private company he had built over the past half-century, said those in attendance. There was little mention of the cash cow that Batten had created for Landmark that had largely taken over the company -- cable television's Weather Channel.
Which is why many in the industry were caught by surprise last week when Norfolk-based Landmark announced that it would consider putting its marquee property up for sale, possibly along with the rest of the company.
Officially, Landmark said it would commence a strategic review, but such reviews typically end in full or partial sales or radical restructuring. Tribune Co. launched a strategic review in 2006 that ended with the publicly traded company going private under the chairmanship of a commercial real estate billionaire last year.
Privately, Landmark is saying that it would consider selling the company as a whole or in pieces.
Landmark started more than 100 years ago as a group of small papers around the Norfolk-Hampton Roads area of southeastern Virginia assembled by Batten's uncle, Samuel L. Slover. It is now a diverse media company with 9,000 employees and more than $2 billion in revenue last year.
Batten passed control of the company to his son, Frank Batten Jr., 49, who holds much of the company's voting stock. The elder, colorful Batten is described throughout the industry as a consummate newspaper publisher-owner, able to publish journalistically sound newspapers that turn a profit. Now 80, the elder Batten has recovered from a recent hip fracture; he had a bout with cancer years ago.
By his admission in previous interviews, Batten Jr. has been less involved in the newspaper side of the company and keeps a lower profile than his father, who also is known for his philanthropy, giving $100 million to the University of Virginia last year. The younger Batten is said to be very interested in new media technology. He declined to comment for this article.
Two other key players at Landmark are Vice Chairman Richard F. Barry III and President Decker Anstrom.
Barry has been a trusted adviser to the Battens for years. He negotiated the 2006 split of a trade publication partnership with Cox Enterprises. Anstrom was a member of the Carter White House and former head of the cable lobby. He became president of the Weather Channel in 1999 and has risen with the Weather properties within the company .
Trusts bearing Batten Jr.'s name control 55 percent of the company's voting shares, according to a filing at the Federal Communications Commission. Batten Sr. administers a trust in the name of Fay Slover, deceased widow of Landmark's founder, that controls 35 percent of the company's votes, the document says.
In addition to the (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot, the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record and several smaller papers, such as the Annapolis Capital, Landmark owns two television stations, a small broadband business and Q Interactive, an Internet marketing company.