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Baugur's exit from newspapers: much ado about everything

Or why the economic woes of "the Nordic hedge fun masquerading as a country" may not have ended Baugur's newspaper adventure.

A week ago, the executives of Nyhedsavisen, the Danish freesheet launched by Baugur-controlled Dagsbrun in 2006, rushed to denounce headlines that the Icelandic group had sold out of the freesheet that famously provoked the Danish freesheet war. It was all much ado about nothing said Svenn Dam, the CEO of 365Media Scandinavia, the Dagsbrun-controlled company that once owned Nyhedsavisen.

Even though Baugur announced in a press release they had sold their media- telecoms and financial assets to Stodir Invest and Styrkur Invest, and stressed they held no shares in the two new groups, Dam insisted it was just a "restructuring". Morten Lund, an early investor in Skype and the current majority owner in Nyhedsavisen, on the other hand, said this was a non-story as Baugur's top man, Jon Asgeir Johannesen, would be chairman of both groups. Danish journalists who were on the receiving end of Baugur's press release said if this was the case, if Lund and Dam were right, then Bagur had a major communication problem.

Complicated? Well, at least this week's news that Baugur is pulling out of its American freesheet BostonNOW, which was shut down with immediate effect on Monday, couldn't be more straightforward. The bigger question is if this spells the end of Baugur/Dagsbrun's newspaper ambitions though. Does it spell the end of the ambitions to export the 'quality freesheet' concept they've been so successful with on Iceland to the rest of the Western world? Well, I'm not so sure.

The current financial crises could of course spell the end for a company as highly geared as Baugur (though, due to its oblique company structure, we don't know exactly how highly geared), in which case freesheets would be the least of Baugur's concerns. But I have to agree with Lund on one or two crucial points, first: these guys (and gals) "have got BIG balls" (to use Lund's words).

And let's be honest: Baugur/Dagsbrun/Nyhedsavsien, at least in my experience, has been a delight to deal with. A recent poll showed Nyhedsavisen had received what perhaps could be described a disproportionally big amount coverage in Danish media since it launched, mostly negative, something Svenn Dam attributed to a media conspiracy against it.

Now me, I wonder if this wasn't due to the fact that these guys are really good for soundbites. Besides, it's been refreshing to see someone invest so much money in an industry so few seem to believe in (even if it did happen to erode the market for paid for newspapers by drastically reducing their ad revenue, another explanation for why the coverage was largely negative).

Which brings me to the second point it's hard not to agree with Lund on, namely how the newspaper game is a very expensive one. It's also a high-risk game in times of economic trouble, as media is a cyclical industry due to its heavy reliance on advertisment revenues.

I'm sorry for rambling nature of my argument here, got to run to an interview in a second, but as a media analyst I talked to yesterday said: 'we've now seen the end of a very optimistic phase where the economy's been going full steam, which means a lot of ambitions new ventures were launched, competition intensified, and we're now moving into a tougher phase which may or may not be a recession.'

This means two things: overtley ambitions new launches crumble and die; or, and I wonder if this is not the case with Baugur, the company behind those launches, finds a way to reduced its exposure to the risk, making sure they could still cash in at some future, more opportune, point in time...


Picture from Morten Lund's blog published when Nyhedsavisen became Denmark's most read newspaper (which it still is)


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