Why is the world's second-richest man buying newspaper shares?

Optimists might be pleased by the news that Carlos Slim, the world’s second richest man, has just bought 6.4% of the beleaguered New York Times Company. This follows Slim’s purchase of a 1% stake in Independent News & Media during May.

Is Slim’s interest a sign that investors have driven the price of newspaper shares so low that they’ve become a bargain?

Maybe. The conventional wisdom suggests that the optimum time to invest is when the last bull has fled the market, when revenue growth has become a distant memory and going to hell in a handbasket seems the only option.

In public, Slim is playing the role of counter-cyclical investor — and that should give the industry some hope.

Arturo Elías Ayub, Mr Slim’s son-in-law, plays up this angle when he tells the FT: “The investment is purely financial. It’s a great company, the price is cheap and it gives a good dividend.”

But the argument is partly disingenuous, too.

It’s just as easy to view Slim as a vulture circling overhead while activist investors put the boot into incumbent management teams. This is the typical prelude to the kind of drastic restructuring that drives share prices upwards and depletes editorial resources.

At the NYT, Slim is riding on the coat-tails of the hedge funds who have grabbed 20% of the company’s shares and are intent upon shaking up the Ochs-Sulzberger regime. Similarly, at IN&M, Slim arrived in the wake of Denis O’Brien’s broadsides against the O’Reillys.

Almost certainly, he smells blood in the water — and profits to come.

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