Owner May Sell The Weather Channel

(AP) A family-owned business that started with a local newspaper more than 100 years ago and became best known as owners of The Weather Channel is looking into selling its businesses, including nine daily newspapers.

Frank Batten Jr., Landmark Communications Inc.'s chairman and CEO, announced Thursday that the privately held company has retained investment banks JPMorgan and Lehman Brothers to help it look into possible sale scenarios.

"At this early stage, we cannot speculate on where this process will lead," Batten said in a statement.

Landmark's vice chairman, Richard F. Barry III, declined in an interview to say why a sale was being considered.

"This will all come out as this thing unfolds," Barry told The Associated Press. "This is Day One of a multi-month process."

Barry said he did not know how much Landmark could make by selling its largest asset, the Atlanta-based Weather Channel, one of the nation's last privately owned cable channels. Landmark previously has rebuffed offers for the channel.

Analysts estimated The Weather Channel could fetch up to $5 billion, especially if coupled with its Web business. The weather.com site had more than 32 million unique users in November and ranks as the nation's 18th-largest media site by traffic, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.

Other media companies, such as General Electric Co.'s NBC Universal or Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., might want to buy The Weather Channel in order to cross-promote their own programs on a channel that is one of the 10 to 15 "go-to" cable channels for many people, said Jimmy Schaeffler, media analyst for The Carmel Group.

Schaeffler also noted that there is a strong trend toward consolidation in the media industry. He likened the Landmark situation to News Corp. recently buying Wall Street Journal publisher Dow Jones & Co. for $5 billion.

"You go after a crown jewel," he said. "What I think is happening here is, rather than waiting to be acquired in a hostile takeover, Landmark is saying we can probably do better for ourselves as shareholders if we do this in a friendly way."

Landmark, which had $1.75 billion in sales in 2006, employs about 12,000, according to Hoover's, a business reference service. It is parent to nine daily papers, including The Roanoke Times in Virginia and The News & Record of Greensboro, N.C., and more than 100 nondaily newspapers and specialty publications.

Landmark also owns television stations in Las Vegas and Nashville, Tenn., and Norfolk-based Dominion Enterprises, a national chain of classified-ad publications.

Many employees only learned of the plans to explore a sale when they read the morning paper.

"It looks like it's the end of a long, storied history," said Denis Finley, editor of Landmark's flagship newspaper, The Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk. "I've been here 20 years. A lot of people have been here longer than I have. It's something I don't think we ever thought would happen. Most of us are in shock."

Samuel L. Slover, Batten's great-uncle, founded Landmark and was a dominant figure in Virginia newspaper publishing for a half-century. He came to Virginia from Tennessee in 1900.

Batten's father, Frank Batten Sr., who will turn 81 next month, was instrumental in building the company since becoming its head in 1954. He stepped down as chairman in 1998.

Landmark launched The Weather Channel in 1982 based on a concept created by John Coleman, a Chicago TV weathercaster who also appeared on "Good Morning America," Batten Sr. wrote in his book, "The Weather Channel: The Improbable Rise of a Media Phenomenon."

Batten explained that he was intrigued because he had been fascinated by the weather since childhood, when he experienced a damaging hurricane while staying at his uncle's Virginia Beach cottage.

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