Falcone takes raincheck on newspapers

March 20, 2008

stearns.jpgMost everybody in the U.S. newspaper publishing world knows Philip Falcone’s name nowadays, but it’s not entirely clear that he knows theirs. The Harbinger Capital Partners hedge fund manager’s notoriety comes from bankrolling efforts to secure large positions in the New York Times Co and Media General Inc, and then shake up the publishers by trying to get his own nominees elected to their boards.

At Media General, this has generated rancor not just for what the Richmond Times-Dispatch publisher sees as an unwanted assault, but for Falcone’s full schedule making him too busy to even meet the top executives whose strategy he’s trashing. Instead of responding to their overtures, he sent his colleague Joseph Cleverdon as his proxy.

We were unsuccessful in reaching Falcone as well, and Harbinger was too busy working on other projects to respond to Media General Chief Executive Marshall Morton’s letter to shareholders explaining why Harbinger’s bid to elect rival directors to the board was something only slightly better thought out than the Bay of Pigs operation.

The Wall Street Journal reported on what Falcone might have been doing that took up so much time while Harbinger was busy buying up Times and Media General shares. In two words: Bear Stearns .

Large hedge funds — including Harbinger Capital Partners, Greenlight Capital, Tremblant Capital Group and Paulson & Co. — made millions of dollars as Bear Stearns’s shares tumbled and various bearish positions rose in value, according to securities filings and people close to the firms.

Harbinger Capital, the $19 billion hedge-fund firm run by Philip Falcone, a former head of high-yield trading at Barclays Capital*, had a short position on Bear from the summer of 2007 until Monday, according to a person familiar with the matter. The stock fell to $5 from $150 in that time period. In a short position, an investor borrows shares and sells them, hoping to replace them at a later date at a lower price, pocketing the difference in the shares as profit.

To be fair, CEO Morton and Falcone are supposed to address institutional investors on Media General at a forum hosted by investor Mario Gabelli early next month — assuming Falcone’s dance card is still free by then.

* Random conspiracy theory: While we don’t know if large Times shareholders were lining up for or against the company before its annual meeting, it’s worth noting that Falcone’s former employer is part of the Barclays empire, which also has a substantial stake in the New York Times. With friends like these…

Keep an eye on:

- Companies already committed to spending millions to advertise at the Beijing Olympics would find it hard to pull their ads if they felt the situation in Tibet was hurting their images. (Reuters)

- There is confusion over whether Clear Channel Communications Inc’s buyout will close, 16 months after the deal was announced, prompting a nearly 9 percent drop in the company’s shares to $32.60. If the deal doesn’t close by a marketing period that ends next week, Clear Channel could go to court to force the banks and private equity firms to try harder. (Wall Street Journal )

-Investment bank UBS is shopping around the Sundance Channel, has a few potential buyers lined up and could wrap things up in a few weeks. (New York Post)

- Tribune Co’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel newspaper and Miami-based WSFL-TV are merging their operations, giving advertisers “a single point of contact” for reaching the South Florida market via print, broadcast and the Internet. It’s the kind of “synergy” that Tribune has been pushing for years, and has the added benefit of saving a whole lot of money as everyone watches to see if new owner Sam Zell can keep the company solvent. (Los Angeles Times)

(Photo: Reuters)

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