In a move that shows a deep commitment to the future of classified/vertical advertising, Gannett has announced it will buy out its newspaper partners in Cars.com and take sole possession of the #2 car site (which trails only Cox’s AutoTrader in the online auto marketplace.)
It will pay heartily to do so, paying $1.8 billion for the 73% stake of Cars.com that it doesn’t already own. That sets a value for Cars.com of $2.5 billion — an impressive amount, but still $500 million less than what the highest estimates called for.
An “economic event” around Cars.com and its sister company, Apartments.com, had been considered an absolute certainty by insiders since Summer 2013. This was mandated by the sale of The Washington Post; and the deep debt of other newspaper partners, notably The Tribune Co., and NY Times Co. Apartments.com was sold this April to CoStar Group.
Some have questioned whether Gannett is paying too heavily for Cars.com at 11.5 x earnings. We don’t comment on these issues, but note that the online auto space has gone through a lot of consolidation, boosting the prospects for more car-maker advertising; and is set for a new era that will likely go beyond dealer advertising and leads to include all kinds of transactions; dealer services such as scheduling; and perhaps other revenue producers. The increased dependence on mobile channels will also play a factor in online auto’s growth.
The Cars.com news was accompanied by Gannett’s announcement that it is separating its newspaper properties from its 46 TV stations and its rich collection of digital properties (i.e. Cars.com, Career Builder, Pointroll, BlinQ, ShopLocal, DealChicken, Clipper Magazine, KeyRing). The newspapers will keep the corporate name, while a new name will be found for the TV/Digital group (perhaps an extension of its recently announced G/O Digital brand?)
The spinoff of the newspaper properties will presumably placate Wall Street’s needs to see media companies unencumbered by newspaper and magazines, which are felt to be in an inevitable — if slow — decline. It follows similar moves by Scripps, Belo, Tribune, News Corp. and Time Warner.
The prospect of Gannett holding its newspaper-developed brands such as Cars.com, CareerBuilder and ShopLocal outside of its newspaper company shows how little synergy is seen with today’s newspaper industry (although the grandfathered Cars.com newspaper owners will hold a five year period of exclusivity to sell Cars.com following the sale.)
Should Cars.com have been kept with the newspaper group anyway? To do so would have forced Gannett to saddle the newspapers with debt from the sale.