After months of speculation, Lagardère Active is close to a deal to sell to Hearst Corp. its U.S. magazine group, Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S., whose titles include Elle and Woman’s Day, sources said.
“It’s between Arnaud [Lagardère] and Frank [Bennack],” said an executive familiar with the talks, referring to the heads of both companies. “They have finally come to terms on management and on the editorial direction of the magazine.”
Word of a deal comes as the French parent revealed this week that it was talking with potential partners outside France as it looks for ways to reduce expenses overseas. That’s a reversal of the stance they took over the summer, when they denied any plan to sell the U.S. magazines.
In a statement, a Lagardère rep said the company “has initiated talks with potential partners outside France, with a view to exploring under what conditions it could enter into partnerships in order to reduce purchasing costs and generate synergies. But nothing will happen any time soon, as these are informal talks that take a long time to deliver results, if they come to anything.”
Asked to comment, a Hearst Magazines rep said the company doesn’t speculate on rumors.
Hachette has been said to be in talks on and off with Hearst for the past several months to unload its much-diminished and recession-bruised magazine business. Condé Nast and Time Inc. also have been seen as potential buyers.
But Hearst is seen as the most logical of the three because the two companies are already partners in the U.S. edition of Marie Claire. Also, Hearst’s experience extending Cosmopolitan to foreign countries could have applications for Elle.
The big question is how Hachette will deal with Elle. Observers believe the company would seek a partnership rather than an outright sale because Elle provides content for the magazine’s overseas editions.
“The issue always was, who’s going to head editorial operations for Elle,” the executive source said.
Hachette’s Woman’s Day could fit with Hearst’s Good Housekeeping and Redbook to make it more competitive with Meredith Corp., publisher of mass-reach women’s titles like Better Homes and Gardens and Family Circle.
Hearst’s interest in Hachette’s auto group, which includes Car and Driver and Road & Track, is less clear. Some see them fitting with Hearst’s Popular Mechanics and Esquire to create a bigger play for advertisers who want to target men, while others point out Hearst has stayed away from special-interest titles.
Both companies recently had a change at the top as part of a string of publishing leadership changes this year. At Hachette, publishing vet Steve Parr was named president and CEO. David Carey left Condé Nast to become president of Hearst. He’s been quiet about his plans, but has said he saw potential to better leverage Hearst’s existing magazine brands and hinted at more magazine partnerships, which the company already has in place to publish O, the Oprah Magazine and Food Network Magazine.
Others question the whole notion of Hearst buying more print, given it’s been moving to pad its digital assets lately, scooping up interactive marketing firm iCrossing.
“The thought that Hearst is going to buy more print is contrary to what they’ve been doing,” said Andrew J. Buchholtz, managing director, A. Buchholtz & Co.
Follow senior editor Lucia Moses @lmoses on Twitter.