Wasserstein's death leaves media assets in limbo

NEW YORK Fri Oct 16, 2009 8:31am EDT

Star dealmake Bruce Wasserstein speaks in New York in a 2007 photo. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Star dealmake Bruce Wasserstein speaks in New York in a 2007 photo.

Credit: Reuters/Mike Segar

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - The sudden death of star dealmaker Bruce Wasserstein on Wednesday has sparked questions about whether the magazines he nurtured will survive in their current form without him.

Wasserstein, who died at the age of 61, considered journalism his second love after investment banking and counted several well-known media properties among his assets, including New York magazine and The Deal LLC.

His death does not necessarily force a sale of those titles, but it is unclear if his heirs or any new owners will be as devoted to them as he was, given that making a profit from print media assets is getting ever more difficult.

Wasserstein, who was the chief executive of investment bank Lazard Ltd, controlled his media properties in different ways. New York magazine is owned by New York Media Holdings, a company Wasserstein chaired. He owned other assets through his $2 billion buyout shop Wasserstein & Co.

The Deal, which employs about 70 journalists, was spun out of American Lawyer Media in 2000. Trade magazine publisher Penton Media is also one of Wasserstein & Co's investments.

Many media industry players said they doubt these assets will be sold anytime soon, given that they have been mostly successful in their niches.

"Every media property the Wasserstein team has owned has been demonstrably improved, both editorially and as a business," said Jim Friedlich, a partner at investment firm ZelnickMedia. "They are very smart and patient owners."

Still, Wasserstein did not intend to keep every property. He sold American Lawyer in 2007, and earlier this year his private equity firm sought potential buyers for The Deal, publisher of TheDeal magazine, which covers the high-stakes world of mergers and the bankers who make them happen.

The company was unable to drum up interest at a high enough price and shelved the process, people familiar with the matter told Reuters.

If New York magazine came up for sale, private equity firms and investors who vied with Wasserstein to buy it in 2003 could be interested. New York, with a circulation of nearly 430,000 copies and 1.8 million weekly readers, is a mainstay of city life with sharply written, often breezy articles and reviews, as well as restaurant, movie and other listings.

But media industry players downplayed the idea that it could be sold anytime soon.

"At this stage in the game, who can think in those terms?" Mort Zuckerman, one of the bidders who tried to buy New York, said. "I just have no idea what the ownership provisions are. I don't know enough to comment on what will happen."

He declined to say if he would try to buy the magazine.

Anup Bagaria, the vice chairman of Wasserstein & Co did not return a call seeking comment. The Deal CEO Kevin Worth referred questions to a spokeswoman, who had no comment.

In recent months it had looked like Wasserstein might expand his media interests.

He and Zuckerman discussed mounting a bid for McGraw-Hill's BusinessWeek magazine, which Bloomberg LP agreed to buy this week, Zuckerman said. When they last talked some months ago, Wasserstein was "brimming with ideas," Zuckerman said.

THE RIGHT KIND OF 'HANDS-ON'

Wasserstein was known for bare-knuckles dealmaking throughout his career, with one Forbes magazine story referring to his "brand of psychological bullying." As a press baron, he enjoyed a more positive reputation.

Both The Deal and New York magazine eulogized their late owner, with New York writing on its website that "New York could not have had a more perfect owner than Bruce."

Kurt Andersen, who had edited New York magazine before being ousted by previous owners, including private equity king Henry Kravis, returned to write there under Wasserstein's ownership.

"He was hands-on in a way that an owner should be hands-on, but not hands-on in the way that, frankly, amateur owners often are," Andersen told Reuters. "That is to say: meddlesome and trying to protect their friends."

The biggest challenge facing U.S. magazines, particularly ones like New York that seek a general audience, is a sharp decline in advertising revenue as more people get news online and the recession forces advertisers to slash spending.

But Wasserstein, whose net worth was $2.2 billion according to Forbes magazine, was just the kind of rich owner who could sustain magazines that he loved through bad times.

Andersen said Wasserstein at one point discussed whether to shut down New York's print edition and move the magazine entirely to the Internet. "At a certain point, apparently, he said, "I want my kids to have this and we're going to keep doing this print magazine."

(Reporting by Anupreeta Das and Robert MacMillan. Editing by Martin Howell and Richard Chang)

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