Local Buyers Eye the Times-Dispatch? 

Local interest may be stirring to take over the Richmond Times-Dispatch, should Media General sell the newspaper.

That's the buzz among rank and file newspaper staffers since Media General, facing more than $660 million in debt and sagging stock prices, announced in February that it was considering a sale of its print operations. Media General didn't respond to a Style Weekly query about whether it's in direct talks to sell the Times-Dispatch.

One local company said to be interested in some kind of ownership relationship is Markel Corp., a specialty insurer based in Glen Allen. Deep-pocketed Markel reported sales of $2.6 billion last year, and its market capitalization is $4.2 billion. Shares of the firm have been selling at about $444 a share, compared with less than $5 a share for Media General. Markel officials didn't respond to requests for comment by press time.

Another possibility is that conservative Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz may be considering teaming up with Markel to purchase the newspaper.

Anschutz, part owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, holds investments in such newspapers as the Washington Examiner, the Baltimore Examiner and the San Francisco Examiner, as well as the conservative analytical journal, the Weekly Standard. Worth $7 billion, Anschutz also has interests in oil, gas and railroads. He's known for funding initiatives opposing gay rights and for opposing the Kyoto Protocol to stem greenhouse gas emissions.

A hint that something might be up at Media General came when labor negotiators for the company recently asked for a three-month suspension of talks for a pay hike proposal prepared by the Richmond Newspapers Professional Association, a bargaining unit representing about 80 Times-Dispatch employees, according to Jay J. Levit, a lawyer representing the group. The union's contract expired March 31.

James V. Meath, the Williams Mullen attorney representing Media General in labor talks, referred inquiries to a company spokesman who didn't respond to questions.

Two dates to watch for more news are this Thursday, April 12, when Media General Chief Executive Marshall Morton is said to be addressing the newspaper's staff, and on April 26, when the company holds its annual shareholders meeting.

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