Scripps Decides to Keep United Media

Article excerpt

It also picks a new president and CEO to head UM, which sources say was almost sold to Time Warner

United Media will have the same owner but a new president.

The EW Scripps Co. has decided not to part with the remaining parts of UM, which include United Feature Syndicate (UFS), Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA) and a licensing division.

Fifteen months ago, Scripps announced that it was exploring the possibility of selling or restructuring UM because it wanted to concentrate on its "core" businesses of daily newspapers, TV stations and cable systems. The Cincinnati-based media company did end up selling UM's TV-listing and book-publishing operations. It also let go longtime UM senior vice president/editorial director David Hendin and lost Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Mike Peters to Tribune Media Services because of his uncertainty about UM's future.

Scripps was reportedly close to selling the rest of UM to Time Warner this year, with sources indicating that negotiations heated up in May and continued into the summer. The sources said Scripps may not have gotten the price it wanted and Time Warner hesitated because Jim Davis wanted ownership of his "Garfield" creation when his contract runs out next spring.

Davis said this week that he was not at liberty to discuss what went on in the negotiations, stating only that his goal during the past 15 months was to protect the interests of "Garfield" under whatever company ended up owning UM. At one point, Davis even looked into buying UM himself.

Neither a Time Warner spokesperson nor Scripps director of corporate communications Rich Boehne would comment about the negotiations, either.

"Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz did make one comment about the prospective UM owner. "I was kind of looking forward to Time Warner," he said. "It would have opened up some TV and movie things."

When asked why Scripps did not sell UM, Boehne said keeping the New York City-based company was always a possibility. "We talked to a number of parties about a wide array of different options," he stated. "We looked at the very best option and decided that the greatest value was for us to retain ownership of the copyrights and the syndicates."

However, the 15-month restructuring period did lead to some resentment against Scripps among UM staffers, creators and licensees.

"Our reaction here is we're kind of appalled at the way this whole thing was handled, especially the secrecy," said Schulz. "It was not very nice to keep all of us on edge like this for all this time.... We didn't know where we stood."

Boehne responded that Schulz' "feelings are understandable. Out of necessity, these kinds of deliberations are conducted in private, but as things came to fruition, we made sure that employees and creators were told. There was a great deal of communication along the way."

He added that Scripps was open from the beginning when it announced 15 months ago that it was exploring various options for UM's future.

"I just hope things settle down now," said Schulz.

"I'm sure the employees at United are breathing a sigh of relief," added Davis. "It was a taxing situation."

Several UM staffers speaking informally said there was indeed a great deal of anxiety as well as resentment against Scripps during the past 15 months, and they added that they are pleased UM is now off the market. But others at UM and elsewhere wondered if Scripps might attempt to sell UM again after some changes are made in the syndication company.

"It's very difficult when you announce you're for sale and then try to convince the staff and creators that you've changed your mind and are now committed to the company," commented Creators Syndicate president Rick Newcombe. "Anyone would question how deep the commitment is. Only time will tell."

Newcombe recalled that the old Field Newspaper Syndicate was put up for sale a decade ago, withdrawn from the market and then sold about a year later to Rupert Murdoch, who renamed it News America Syndicate. …