Japan’s Nikkei leaps into global publishing with FT acquisition

Japan’s Nikkei media, in a surprise move, took a huge leap into global media publishing Thursday by announcing that it’s buying Britain’s Financial Times (FT) newspaper from Pearson publishing for $1.3 billion dollars.

The largest acquisition ever by a Japanese media company, either at home or abroad, is the latest in a series of efforts by Asia-based media interests to build a presence outside the region. Forbes Media, the publisher of Forbes magazine, agreed in July last year to sell a controlling stake to Integrated Whale Media Investments, a group that includes the Hong Kong investor Tak Cheung Yam and Wayne Hsieh, the Singaporean co-founder of AsusTek Computer. China’s Southern Media Group also made an unsuccessful bid to buy ailing Newsweek magazine in June 2010.

Nikkei’s move, moreover, is part of a recent wave of foreign acquisitions by Japanese firms egged on by the Bank of Japan’s easier monetary policy. It stirs memories of Japanese electronics maker Sony’s purchase of Columbia Pictures in September 1989 for $3.4 billion.

“I am extremely proud of teaming up with the Financial Times, one of the most prestigious news organizations in the world,” said Tsuneo Kita, chairman and group CEO of Nikkei. “We share the same journalistic values.”

Word that Nikkei, which publishes the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Japan’s top financial broadsheet, came as a shock in western media circles. Reports had earlier identified  Thomson Reuters, Bloomberg or Axel Springer as FT’s likely buyers.

The Financial Times reported Thursday that the acquisition turned into a last-minute duel between Nikkei and German publisher Axel Springer. The two rival bidders were said to be keen on expanding their English-language presence in the global media markets.

The FT said Axel Springer has been discussing a possible purchase with Pearson for nearly a year. Japan’s Nikkei reportedly only came to the table in the last five weeks. But the Germans weren’t aware that they had lost out to Nikkei until 15  minutes before the deal was announced, the FT said quoting sources.

The Nikkei/FT deal is expected to close in the fourth quarter of 2015.

Nikkei is an employee-owned firm that also lends its name to Japan’s Nikkei stock market index. The company traces its beginnings to a weekly commodity bulletin launched in 1876 called the Chugai Bukka Shimpo. The paper merged with various other publications through World War II. The newspaper was renamed the Nihon Keizai Shimbun in 1946. The Nikkei Shimbun is reputedly the world’s largest financial newspaper with a circulation of 3 million for its morning edition.

The company publishes an English-language Nikkei Weekly Review digest of its Japanese news and other media products for non-Japanese readers. But this is its first acquisition of a world-class English-language publication. No other Japanese publishers have made comparable international buys.

Asahi Shimbun Digital said Thursday that Nikkei acquired FT because Japan’s falling birth rate is leading to a “shrinking media market,” prompting it to hunt for international opportunities. Nikkei also wants to use the FT purchase to expand into Asia’s English-language financial news market. FT and Nikkei had also undertaken many joint ventures over the years, paving the way for Thursday’s deal, Asahi said.

The Japanese acquisition is jolting Britain’s staid Fleet Street newspaper establishment in a way not seen since Australian Rupert Murdoch bought the Times of London and the Sunday Times in 1981. The FT, long known for its distinctive salmon pink newsprint, was founded in 1884 and has been owned by Pearson for almost 60 years.

Now that it’s unloading FT, Pearson plans to concentrate on education publishing. It will also retain its 47% stake in Penguin Random House books. Nikkei will not acquire FT’s 50% stake in The Economist magazine or the newspaper’s London HQ building under the deal.

Asian companies have been raising their presence in global entertainment media as well as publishing. Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda also bought AMC Entertainment, the second largest US theater chain for $2.6 billion in September 2012. Dalian Wanda CEO Wang Jianlin told Bloomberg he aims to control 20% of the global film market by 2020.

Speculation is growing that Chinese interests may soon acquire a major Hollywood studio. Chinese tycoon Jack Ma has been signing content deals with Hollywood film houses. Both Ma and Dalian’s Wang are reportedly interested in acquiring Lions Gate Entertainment, the producer of “The Hunger Games” and other movie hits.

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