High noon at the Herald

If Purcell sells off the suburbs, what will happen to his big-city tab?  
By MARK JURKOWITZ  |  March 30, 2006

SUBURBAN SELLOFF: Herald Media boss Pat Purcell could sell off the CNC papers.

Pat Purcell’s speech last Friday at a UMass Boston conference on ethnic media was auspiciously timed. That very morning, Steve Bailey’s Globe business column reported on heated speculation that Purcell was “close to a deal” to break up his Herald Media empire by selling the suburban-based Community Newspaper Company (CNC), which he bought just five years ago.

Warily eyeing reporters in the audience, Purcell began by declaring, “I can tell you in advance: there will be no news.” And then, seeming a bit distracted and rushed, he delivered a speech that touched on the problems in his business.

“We have to change,” he said. “We’re being ruthlessly efficient behind the curtain. Anywhere we can save a buck, we have to do it.... It’s not a pretty picture for Metro dailies. We are faced with challenges like never before.”

Afterward, during a question-and-answer period, Purcell was confronted by one of his own CNC journalists worried about the future of the operation.

“Is there any way to keep this commitment to local?” she asked.

“I think we’ve done a reasonably good job of serving the local community,” he responded. “This is the hand we were dealt.”

These days, Purcell may not have the winning cards. Ever since the October announcement that he was looking to recapitalize and “explore new strategic opportunities,” it’s been widely known that Herald Media — which includes the flagship Boston tabloid, four other dailies, and more than 100 weeklies, shoppers, and specialty publications — has been in play. (In any scenario, it’s worth noting that four of Purcell’s children and one son-in-law work in the business.)

The rumors have been all over the place. Purcell will re-load with new investors. Or maybe he will cash out to another newspaper operator. He will sell as one package the Herald, which has had serious financial struggles, and CNC, which is thought to be profitable and attractive. Or perhaps he’ll have to split them up. The gossiped-about suitors have ranged from unnamed equity firms to the well-known Denver-based newspaper mogul William Dean Singleton.

Bailey’s reporting — that a buyer might spend about $400 million to grab the CNC chain in a package with the Quincy Patriot Ledger and the Brockton Enterprise while Purcell hangs on to the Herald — came amid feverish rumors of an announcement.

Notoriously close-mouthed, Purcell poured tepid water on that idea last Friday when asked if he would soon have major news.

“Probably not,” he said tersely.

But that does little to allay the concerns of a city wondering how much longer it will remain a two-newspaper town or to calm the nerves of jittery Herald Media employees.

Acknowledging that a new rumor about the company’s future crops up practically every day, one Herald staffer admits that “it’s impossible to say now which theory has more weight. I think things are really in limbo now.”

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