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The New York Times Isn't For Sale, But That Could Change Soon

Sales are stagnating and cash is running out. It may have to sell.

Stuart Monk / Shutterstock.com

The New York Times is the last major American newspaper to be owned by a family dynasty, in this case the Ochs-Sulzbergers, a tight-knit and occasionally fractious clan who even at their best have been criticized as relics of an earlier era — generous and genteel and maybe a tad out of touch.

That’s partly why former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg has for most of a decade wanted to own the paper of record. The self-made billionaire, who’s never been impressed by the family’s management, feels he would do better, according to those who know him.

And as one of the more fantastic pieces of Manhattan media gossip, the notion continues to make the rounds, like a campfire song with a new detail added on to each pass. The latest comes courtesy of New York Magazine’s Gabriel Sherman who reported Friday that Bloomberg had over a year ago inquired about the possibility of buying the Times with publisher Arthur Sulzberger. He promptly replied it wasn’t for sale.

End of saga, right?

Not quite. The Times may not for sale today, but that could change soon. The company’s executives, including CEO Mark Thompson, have done a deft job of managing costs and paying down its debt, but they still had to lay off staff after its app strategy wasn’t quite working.

And looking at the Times’ financial performance, a deal discussion may become more urgent. Revenues were flat through most of last year, with circulation sales rising 1.6 percent and ad sales dropping 0.4 percent in the first nine months of 2014. The paper increased circulation dollars partly from setting higher subscription and newsstand prices, and despite gains in its paywall, that’ll likely slow down soon.

The paper still has about $966 million in cash and $669 million in debt and other obligations, leaving about $296 million, a shallow cushion. It also pays out a dividend that costs $24 million a year, of which $2.9 million goes to the family, helping to keep them united. But if revenues continue to stagnate, a sale will have to be considered. (While the Times is a public company, only the family can approve a deal, which you can read more about here.)

Sulzberger’s refusal to sell may seem blindingly obstinate in the face of such numbers, but the paper’s digital readership has grown, and its online ad sales have started to rise, thanks in part to its latest push into native advertising. So it’s not all bleak.

But another, more elemental factor is likely Sulzberger’s own place as head steward of the New York Times, a role he was bred to play and which he takes very earnestly, according to people who know him. It’s also a role with a limited brotherhood. Sulzberger was stunned when he’d heard that Don Graham, a longtime friend and head of the family that owned the Washington Post, sold the paper to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, according to several people familiar with the matter.

The sale, which was seen as a brave and responsible move on the part of Graham and which ended his family’s eight decades of ownership, also had the effect of making the Times owners the last of the major newspaper dynasties. Fairly quickly, Sulzberger issued a statement at the time saying the Times was not for sale.

Bloomberg may be one of the few willful billionaires (is there any other kind?) who has the cash and the chutzpah to buy the Times, which is currently trading at about $2 billion in market value. A sale would have to command a much higher premium, of course, with a sticker price that will have to compare to the $5 billion Rupert Murdoch paid for the Wall Street Journal in 2007. As the 23rd richest person in the world with a net worth of $35 billion, Bloomberg can easily afford it.

More importantly, it’s his hunger for influence that’s motivated much of his plans, from starting a news division at his company a few decades ago to becoming mayor of New York, and while he already wields plenty of it, like all good capitalists, he simply wants more.

Update: Here’s at least one guy who thinks it’s as good as done:

https://twitter.com/rupertmurdoch/status/558999503383310336

Whether or not Bloomberg is the right owner for the Times, the Ochs-Sulzbergers may not have much time left. The value of the paper will decline unless its fortunes turn around soon, and they might not get a higher price later on down the line.

Representatives for both Bloomberg and the Sulzberger family declined to comment.

We’ll have the chance to ask more about the paper’s prospects next month when Times chief executive Thompson joins us at Code/Media in Dana Point, Calif.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.