UPDATE: IndyStar parent firm rejects $1.4B offer, but fight might not be over

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The publisher of USA Today, The Indianapolis Star and dozens of other newspapers said no to a hedge-fund backed media group with a reputation for slashing jobs, but the buyout fight might not be over.

Gannett on Monday said its board has unanimously rejected an unsolicited $1.36 billion buyout from MNG Enterprises, better known as Digital First Media. Digital First then said that it might nominate new Gannett board directors to consider its offer.

The board decided the $12 per share offer was too low, and that it wasn't in the interest of the company or its shareholders, according to Gannett Co. Gannett also cast doubt on Digital First's ability to complete the deal after it said the company refused to answer questions about its ability to fund the acquisition without a non-disclosure agreement.

"It appears that MNG does not have a realistic plan to acquire Gannett," Gannett said in a prepared statement.

While the newspaper industry has shrunk and consolidated as readers ditch print papers and go online, leading to dramatic job losses at papers across the U.S., Digital First has a reputation for particularly stringent, painful cost-cutting.

It has become one of the biggest U.S. newspaper chains, with about 200 papers and other publications, including The Denver Post and the Boston Herald. Its biggest shareholder is Alden Global Capital LLC, a New York hedge fund that invests in distressed companies.

Digital First said Gannett was not interested in seriously considering its proposal, and it may take the fight to the board with new director nominations. It has a 7.5 percent stake in Gannett.

Digital First said it has retained a financial adviser for the deal, Moelis & Co.

A big question is whether Digital First could get significant votes from other shareholders, said Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at the Poynter Institute. And there may be other twists and turns to come. There is industry speculation that Gannett, which also owns the Arizona Republic and Detroit Free Press, may try to combine with another newspaper publisher or turn around and try to buy parts of Digital First.

Newspaper industry consolidation has followed circulation and advertising declines. Newsroom employment fell by nearly a quarter between 2008 and 2017, according to Pew Research, and layoffs have continued this year.

In recent weeks there have been job cuts and buyout offers at old-school newspaper publishers like Gannett and McClatchy as well as at digital outlets like Vice, Huffington Post and BuzzFeed.

In late December, six longtime Star newsroom staffers, including cartoonist Gary Varvel and editor Greg Weaver, said they would take early retirement buyouts. In January, Gannett laid off three Star newsroom employees, including columnist Tim Swarens, and cut ties with two freelance business columnists.

Gannett shares slid 3.4 percent Monday.

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