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By PHILIP WALZER The Virginian-Pilot NORFOLK, Va. — The decision to put Landmark Communications Inc. up for sale this year thrust the diversified media company into a position its chairman shrinks from himself: directly in the spotlight. It’s been a decade since Frank Batten Jr. succeeded his fabled father as chairman of Landmark, whose holdings now include The Weather Channel; Dominion Enterprises, a Norfolk-based information and marketing services company; The Virginian-Pilot and dozens of smaller papers including The News-Enterprise, the LaRue County Herald and The Record in Grayson County; two television stations; and various technology businesses. Since then, Batten, former general manager and publisher of The News-Enterprise, has earned a reputation as a savvy entrepreneur, community-minded, scrupulous, exacting in his standards and yet willing to delegate wide latitude to trusted intimates. Much like his father. But inside and outside his company, he is seen as less passionate about newspapers, more open to risk and wise to the ways of technology. More deeply religious. More withdrawn. “He struck me as a completely guileless person,” said Walter Rugaber, former publisher of The Roanoke (Va.) Times, which is owned by Landmark. “He pretty much tended to say what was on his mind, almost to a fault. And yet he was and is a very private person. You have that sort of dichotomy there that’s very hard to figure out.” Batten, who will turn 50 in July, declined a face-to-face interview. He agreed to answer questions by e-mail, responding to six of 40 that were submitted. The subjects he did not address included his personal life, his professional achievements and disappointments, and the reason for the company breakup. Batten did say “there has been a tremendous amount of interest in our businesses.” The Wall Street Journal reported late last month that two suitors – Time Warner and a partnership led by General Electric Co.’s NBC Universal – leading contenders for The Weather Channel, Landmark’s most lucrative property. The latest round of bids were due May 23, according to the Journal, and were expected to come in between $3 billion and $4 billion. Amplifying his previous comment that Landmark would steer clear of “inappropriate buyers,” Batten also wrote: “We expect to sell our newspapers to companies whose publishing executives have a track record of successfully serving the needs of readers, advertisers, employees and local communities.” Frank Batten Sr., 81, the nephew of Landmark’s founder, Samuel L. Slover, acquired dozens of small and medium-size newspapers over the years. His son values newspapers, too, but it’s not at his father’s level of passion, said Louis Ryan, who retired in 1999 as Landmark’s executive vice president and general counsel. The announcement five months ago to sell Landmark – a $2 billion private company in which the younger Batten has majority voting power – stoked speculation that the son wanted finally to forge his own path as he enters his 50s. While not disclosing the reason then, Batten said it was not tied to personal motives. Rugaber wonders. “I never really felt he enjoyed the newspaper business,” he said. “Frank Jr. didn’t like people being mad all the time, and that’s what you get when you’re a newspaper publisher.” Others suggest that the decision was pure business. Batten, they say, might have done on a large scale what he’s practiced for years: Probing the terrain with an analytical mind and making the most sensible choice, putting emotions aside. “Keeping the business intact may be the dumbest thing that anybody can do,” said Frank Daniels Jr., a retired publisher of The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., and former member of Landmark’s board. Batten’s legacy, Daniels predicted, will be “selling the company. That’s the hardest decision of all.” From early on, friends and colleagues say, Frank Batten Jr. was sober-minded and self- effacing, never one to call attention to himself – or the family name. Like his father, Batten began his career as an ad salesman and reporter. After two years in business school came an 18-month reporting stint with The Associated Press in London. Batten moved in 1986 to Elizabethtown where he served as general manager, then publisher, of The News-Enterprise. Lamonte Hornback, a Realtor in Elizabethtown, recalled him as “very reserved” and “quite astute.” Batten, he said, once bought a Nissan with no air conditioning, presumably to show his staff he didn’t throw money away. “I just plain liked him,” Hornback said. “He needs to get back here and visit us sometime.” Batten returned to Norfolk in 1990, continuing his climb up Landmark’s ladder. He was president and publisher of The Pilot from 1991 to 1995, succeeded his father as chairman of Landmark in 1998, and added the title of chief executive officer in 2001. Batten’s finest accomplishment, said Ryan, may be that “under his leadership, Landmark newspapers are in better shape than many others.” Through trusts, Batten, who lives in a waterfront Norfolk home valued at $3.5 million, owns at least 5.1 percent of the company, according to the most recent records related to Landmark’s television stations on file with the Federal Communications Commission. Virginia Business last estimated his net worth at $700 million in 2006. At every step in his career, colleagues remember him as a weekly churchgoer. Batten’s family attends Tabernacle Church of Norfolk; his two sons go to Norfolk Christian Schools. Batten leads a Sunday night Bible study group, said Tabernacle’s senior pastor, Kenny Bryant, and he meets with Bryant at least quarterly to help him think strategically about the church’s mission. Unlike his parents, who have donated hundreds of millions of dollars primarily to educational institutions, including U.Va. and ODU, Batten and his wife, Aimee, have primarily funded Christian causes from their own private foundation. According to Internal Revenue Service documents, their foundation gave $45 million from 2001 to 2006. Locally, Norfolk Christian and Tabernacle were major recipients. Outside the area, the Battens during that time donated $13 million to Wycliffe Bible Translators, which seeks to translate the Bible into every language on Earth, and $2 million to Focus on the Family, an evangelical group led by James Dobson, a prominent Christian conservative. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington-based law firm that advocates for free religious expression worldwide, has received more than $550,000 from Frank and Aimee Batten, according to the IRS forms. “He’s one of the few who will put down a substantial amount of money to defend the religious freedom of people he disagrees with,” said Becket’s president, Kevin J. “Seamus” Hasson. THE FRANK BATTEN JR. FILE Age: 49 Residence: Norfolk Education: Bachelor’s degree, Dartmouth, 1980; MBA, University of Virginia, 1984 Career:
Philip Walzer is a business writer for The Virginian-Pilot. He can be reached at email@example.com.