RICHMOND -- The "for sale" sign is hanging at J. Stewart Bryan III's newspapers, but California investor Burt Sugarman shouldn't get excited -- the deal is for advertising space, not the papers themselves.
"There are plenty of enticing offers, but they're not for sale," Bryan, newly installed as chairman of Media General Inc., said of the company's daily newspapers here and in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Tampa.
Two years ago, Sugarman, a television game show producer, tried to parlay control of about 10 percent of Media General stock into three seats on the board of directors. But the effort failed because of a two-tiered stock plan that gave the Bryan family the upper hand in shareholder voting power.
Sugarman eventually gave up his holdings for $44 million and a newsprint recycling mill valued at $56 million, which he sold a year later for $95 million.
Bryan, 52, said he didn't begrudge Sugarman the profit. "We think we made a good deal and we're happy with it," he said.
But the Sugarman episode taught Bryan "what a waste of company resources it is to spend money and time to fend off raiders when you ought to be spending your time trying to maximize shareholder value," he said.
These days, tending to the needs of shareholders means coping with a sluggish advertising market.
On July 1, Bryan succeeded his father, D. Tennant Bryan, as chairman and replaced James S. Evans as president and chief executive.
The younger Bryan, who also is a director of the Associated Press, is the fourth generation of his family to run the city's newspapers.
His father, who turns 84 this week, succeeded Bryan's grandfather as publisher in 1944, then founded Media General in 1969 and steered the company to a tenfold increase in assets over 20 years.
During the senior Bryan's final quarter as chairman, the company posted $12.4 million in earnings, or 48 cents a share, more than double the $6.1 million, or 23 cents a share, in the second quarter of 1989.
The company attributed the earnings increase partly to a recent restructuring move -- the sale of two unprofitable weekly newspaper chains in Southern California -- and to the receipt of past-due royalty payments from a foreign newsprint affiliate.
But Stewart Bryan said advertising, a key element in newspaper profits, is still "troublesome" for Media General's Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Richmond News Leader, the Winston-Salem Journal and the Tampa Tribune.
"You set goals all the time, but they're very hard to keep when you're in a recession, in an advertising recession, which is certainly what all media companies with very few exceptions are in right now," Bryan said. "Times are tough."
Bankruptcies and consolidations in the retail industry are a large part of the problem, he said.
Three years ago, the Miller & Rhoads department store chain was the leading advertiser in the Richmond papers, Bryan said. "And now Miller & Rhoads is no more."
The chain went bankrupt late last year. Although some Miller & Rhoads stores were sold to other chains, its flagship downtown store just two blocks from Media General's headquarters here remains vacant.
Media General's restructuring has meant selling much of its newsprint interests as well as the California papers. Last year, the company's revenue fell to $606 million from $756 million in 1988, largely because of divested assets. Operating profits of $65 million in 1989 were down 34 percent from $98 million a year earlier.
What remains of Media General, in addition to the daily newspapers, are three television stations in Tampa and Jacksonville, Fla., and Charleston, S.C.; two cable television companies in Fairfax County and Fredericksburg, Va.; a 40 percent stake in New Jersey-based Garden State Newspapers, a chain of weeklies; plus a few smaller holdings.
"Instead of expanding, we are trying to get back to the core businesses that have been the basis for whatever success we have enjoyed over the years," Bryan said. "These are the businesses we think enhance our operating statement and thereby enhance our desire to help our shareholders in the long term receive great benefit for their faith in us."
Bryan came up through the ranks of the business, working in circulation and editorial posts before becoming publisher of the Tribune Co. in Tampa.
He subsequently became publisher of the Richmond papers and was named a director of Media General in 1974.
"He caught on real quick," said Tennant Bryan. "It was time for me to go and time for him to take over. I think he has earned the high regard of his colleagues and his contemporaries in the press."
"I was never brought up to think I'd be running this company," Stewart Bryan said. "I guess I began to think it might be a possibility in the last five years or so."
Taking over the top job "feels pretty much the same as before, just a little less free time, a little more mail, a little more work to do, I suppose," he said. "This is not any radical change. The same people are here."
Bryan's father stayed on as chairman of the board of directors' executive committee, and Evans, who had been president since 1982 and CEO since 1985, moved to vice chairman.
"We try to seek a consensus on what it is we're doing or considering doing, and I think it will remain that way," Bryan said.
Industry analysts see the company's shift in management as a good sign.
"Frankly, I think having a younger guy at the helm is a positive step for this company," said Peter Appert, a stock analyst with C.J. Lawrence in New York.
Susan Putnam, a securities analyst with Moran & Associates Inc. of Greenwich, Conn., said advertising weakness and the depressed newsprint holdings have acted as "a double whammy" against Media General.
But for investors with patience, the stock could be worth holding, she said.
In recent months, one of those investors has been Mario J. Gabelli, a New York money manager who has raised his stake of Media General stock to about 17 percent.
Bryan said he was not worried that Gabelli's holdings might be used in another power play, similar to the Sugarman raid.
"His investment in us is really quite small when you look at it in terms of his total pot that he's got to invest somewhere," Bryan said.
Gabelli did not return telephone calls.
Bryan said any short-term growth probably would result from internal moves, although the company regularly studies potential newspaper, magazine and television purchases.
"We look at acquisitions weekly, and we bid on some," he said. "We pass on a lot, but we bid on some."
Bryan, a Marine Corps veteran and the father of two daughters, said he has had little time recently for his hobbies of tennis, fishing and duck hunting.
He is still the publisher of the two newspapers here, which are planning to move from downtown to a Hanover County site where construction already is under way on a new printing plant.
Of all the jobs he has held, Bryan said, his favorite was being a political reporter in Florida.
"What I've always wanted to do and the most fun I've ever had in my life was covering state politics for the Tampa papers," he said.
"That was more fun than anything I've ever done. And if I had to make an honest living again I guess that's what I'd do, try to sign on at a newspaper somewhere and cover state politics -- not national politics. Too many people are in that herd covering national politics."
However, the person in public life that Bryan admires most is President Bush, not a state political figure like Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder.
Bryan described Wilder as "a very engaging fellow" who has the potential of becoming a national political force. "But I think he'd better tend to things at home if he really wants to become one," Bryan said.