The New York Times (NYT) looks to be for sale.
The sudden resignation of CEO Janet Robinson, combined with the retirement of digital head Martin Nisenholtz, practically puts a “for sale” sign on the place.
The problem is, who wants to buy a newspaper company?
Now who wants to buy a digital content company with a big name brand and the start of a Clue on how to market?
Seen as a newspaper entity only, the only possible buyer is someone like Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. (NWS). The price would be chump change on NWS' $42 billion market cap, and it would pretty sew up the market, making Murdoch America's Sylvio Berlusconi in all but title.
Not going to happen. First of all, Murdoch's board will object since newspapers are getting in the way of their profits. Second, the FTC is bound to object, delaying the deal considerably.
But if you see this as a digital content play, if you change The New York Times to The Times (or NYTimes to avoid confusion with News Corp.'s failing UK paper), maybe other buyers emerge:
Time Warner (TWX) – The Times has a better brand than Time Warner's namesake magazine, standing for now instead of next week, and could easily absorb that company's flailing digital operations.
CBS (CBS) – CBS is actually a large electronic publisher, and while they're mainly good at extracting value from such acquisitions, rather than increasing value, beggars can't be choosers. Put the Times people in charge of CBS Interactive and you have a very complete digital set-up.
Disney (DIS) – Remember we're talking about a digital brand, not a newspaper. The Times, not The New York Times. Disney could turn the Times into a news equivalent of ESPN, folding its ABC News into the Times Web site, using the brand to sell digital books from other Disney brands.
One more word about the London paper. Any of these buyers could easily take it off Murdoch's hands. The board there would be glad to sell it. And the Murdoch family might let it go as a gesture to English sensibilities, since they've never made any profit from it.
Remember, we're not talking big dollars here, for the big digital media companies. Even in an active auction you can get the Times for “only” $1.5 billion. That's very affordable for a big media company, cheap-as-chips for a big digital company.
Maybe Facebook could come in for it.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.