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Ottaway readers, advertisers cast wary eye on Dow Jones talks

As the Bancroft clan deliberates over a $5 billion News Corp. bid for Dow Jones & Co., the media company controlled by the family since 1902, people with a stake in the Dow Jones-owned Ottaway chain of local publications are watching nervously from the sidelines.

So far, there have been few clues to how a Dow Jones ownership change might affect the 27 dailies, weeklies, and lifestyle magazines in the Ottaway stable, including the Cape Cod Times, the Standard-Times of New Bedford, and the Portsmouth Herald in New Hampshire, along with newspapers from Maine to Oregon.

But whether they're rolled into the global juggernaut of News Corp.'s Rupert Murdoch, the Australian-born media baron known for lurid headlines and titillating photos, or resold on the secondary market, some worry about their continued commitment to their communities.

"Certainly we're all talking about it, and we're all concerned about it," said Peter T. Kavanaugh, the president of La-Z-Boy Furniture Galleries of Dartmouth, a longtime advertiser in the Standard-Times. "The Ottaway papers tend to be local papers. They're not centralized. If any of these papers were to lose that local flavor, the readership would plunge. And that would create a void for the local advertisers."

Ottaway employees, advertisers, and readers, parsing the statements of Dow Jones and News Corp. figures involved in takeover talks, have been disappointed that the future of Ottaway, acquired by Dow Jones in 1970, has been largely absent from the public discourse, while the fate of Dow Jones' Wall Street Journal looms large.

One of the few references to Ottaway hasn't been flattering. In a lengthy interview with the Journal published June 6, Murdoch, the News Corp. chairman and chief executive, dismissively observed, "Those silly little Ottaway papers make more than the Journal does."

In fact, the Ottaway community publications posted operating profits of $48.2 million last year on $252.2 million in sales, outstripping the $33.9 million in profits on revenue of $1.1 billion for the Dow Jones operating group that includes the Journal and Barron's magazine.

Still, the Journal is viewed as the most coveted prize for Murdoch and News Corp. because of its reputation for quality financial news and its potential to spur cross-promotion and joint advertising with a financial news television network News Corp. is launching.

James H. Ottaway Jr., the retired chairman of Ottaway newspapers and a large Dow Jones stock owner, has been vocal in opposing a sale to Murdoch, whom he fears might undermine the independence of the Journal's news while slanting its editorials toward his favored candidates or business interests. But he is less worried that Murdoch would interfere in the operations of Ottaway papers.

"He hasn't telegraphed his intentions," said Ottaway, whose father founded the chain of publications bearing the family name. "There's a very good chance it would be such a small part of his huge global empire that he might not meddle in its editorial policy or its news."

Andrew Butcher, a News Corp. spokesman in New York, acknowledged the Ottaway papers and magazines have not figured prominently in the negotiations with Dow Jones and its controlling Bancroft family members, who huddled with lawyers and financial advisers at the Boston Hilton on Monday to consider the News Corp. offer. Family members, who have been deeply divided, said Murdoch has set a deadline of tomorrow for the Bancrofts to approve a sale.

"Everyone has been very concentrated on the Journal," said Butcher. "I'm sure that Rupert will talk about everything if and when the Bancrofts come back" with their response to the News Corp. bid.

Several Ottaway editorial employees, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid the ire of a prospective new owner, said they hope the Bancrofts reject Murdoch's offer. But after months of uncertainty and anxiety, they're looking forward to clarity, whatever the outcome.

"They're after the Wall Street Journal, not us," one employee said. "I don't think anyone expects Rupert to pick up the phone and say, 'We've got to come down hard on the zoning board for some project.' "

Media analyst Edward J. Atorino, managing director for Benchmark Co., a New York brokerage, said News Corp. is most likely to sell Ottaway to another chain focusing on community newspapers.

"Murdoch wants the Journal to help him build a financial news network in television and print," Atorino said. "Ottaway certainly doesn't fit into a structure like that. It doesn't fit with the Murdoch strategy."

Potential buyers could include GateHouse Media Inc., Media News Group, or Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., suggested Ken Doctor, analyst for research firm Outsell Inc. in San Jose, Calif. Community Newspaper last October bought a half dozen Ottaway newspapers from Dow Jones for $282.5 million, including the Danbury News Times in Connecticut and papers in upstate New York, Pennsylvania, and California.

Even with the decline in newspaper advertising, local papers remain more profitable than larger regional dailies, and the owners of papers in contiguous markets have been able to consolidate operations, reduce overhead, and attract bigger advertisers, Doctor said.

"There's still a decent market for smaller newspapers," he said. "My sense is the market will only get worse. So if News Corp. wants to optimize the value of these papers, they'll be shopping them."

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.

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