Supermarket, real-estate and gas-station tycoon John Catsimatidis—the latest publicly identified suitor for Mort Zuckerman’s New York Daily News—says he’s a serious potential bidder for the money-losing tabloid.
“Nobody would ever say that I got into a deal just to play around,” Catsimatidis (pronounced “cat-see-ma-TEE-dees”) told me on Tuesday morning as reports proliferated that, circumstances permitting, he’d like to buy the paper along with its color presses in suburban New Jersey. “At the age of 66, I’m gonna have fun,” he added.
Fellow billionaire Zuckerman, a commercial real-estate developer who bought the 95-year-old paper in 1993 and last week hung a “For Sale” sign on it, has been losing enthusiasm for subsidizing the paper’s estimated $20 million-a-year-losses, and has been actively seeking a buyer for months. He has retained the Lazard financial advisers to help facilitate a sale.
As for why Catsimatidis would consider shouldering the cost of a dead-tree journalism tabloid, which, like other papers, has suffered financially with the advent of the digital age, “It’s for the challenge—and how to convert it for the 21st century,” he told me. “One day, you’ll be sitting in bed, press a button and get a 3-D hologram right in front of you, and the paper won’t even have to be delivered to you. That might sound scary.”
Catsimatidis insisted, however, that his interest in the News is no hologram—and former News editor-in-chief Martin Dunn said the paper could do worse.
“He obviously is a marketer,” Dunn told The Daily Beast. “He knows how to promote, he knows how to sell. He understands politics. He understands consumers. So he could be a very good fit.”
Catsimatidis, like any other possible bidder for the paper, is operating under a confidentiality agreement with Zuckerman as the long and complicated process goes forward—so he couldn’t say much about the deal in progress.
But according to a person with knowledge of their delicate dance, it all started in January when Zuckerman, 77, invited Catsimatidis to lunch at Casa Lever, a Midtown Manhattan watering hole for the rich and near-famous, and raised the prospect of Catsimatidis owning the News. Catsimatidis was immediately intrigued, said this source, and could see how the News could be a “doable” business proposition if everyone, including the various newspaper unions, cooperated in cost-cutting measures. In addition, the News’s state-of-the-art color presses—for which Zuckerman paid a reported $120 million six years ago—could be used to greater capacity, and profitability, if other regional newspapers could be persuaded to print on them.
“I’m a hands-on owner to a degree,” Catsimatidis said. “When I take over a business, I jump in and fix it, train the people who have to work on it day to day, and then I move on.”
If he were ever to gain ownership of The New York Daily News, Catsimatidius told me, “I believe in honesty and integrity. I don’t believe in using emotions to run a newspaper. I believe in giving people the truth and letting them decide.”
There are many reasons, of course, Catsimatidis would want give newspapering a shot.
First of all, the guy loves the limelight. Even if he never closes a deal with Zuckerman, Catsimatidis has already reaped a huge reward; the explosion of press attention in the past day is pure mind-bending crack for the 66-year-old entrepreneur.
Second, owning a major if declining media outlet—and the News, which once circulated in the millions, still sells more than 400,000 copies a day—would enhance his image, self-created and otherwise, as a New York power player. It certainly gives him more juice than his four-decade ownership of The Hellenic Times, a small Greek American-oriented bimonthly of which his wife, Margo, is publisher, or, for that matter, hosting The CATS Roundtable, his Sunday morning talk radio show celebrating 52 weeks on WNYM.
Catsimatidis—born on the tiny island of Nisyros in the Aegean Sea and brought to 135th Street in Harlem when he was 6 months old, the son of a busboy who never mastered English and never graduated to waiter—revels in the sheer supremacy of his Rolodex. Bill and Hillary Clinton are only a phone call away, as are New York’s governor and congressional delegation.
Like any businessman with a Forbes-estimated net worth of $3.1 billion ($500 million more than Zuckerman’s Forbes number), he enjoys direct access to Republicans and Democrats alike; Dick Cheney and his daughter Liz recently visited the decidedly un-chic ramshackle offices of the Red Apple Group, Catsimatidis’s holding company, a couple of floors above one of his Gristedes stores on Manhattan’s West Side.
In January, at his showplace apartment on Fifth Avenue, he and Margo hosted a meet-and-greet for Florida’s Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. The entire political world, including then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, showed up to pay homage at the $2 million wedding three years ago of Catsimatidis’s daughter Andrea to Richard Nixon’s grandson, Christopher Cox—although, alas, the power couple recently filed for divorce. In early 2013, when Catsimatidis was mounting his quixotic mayoral campaign as a Republican, he told me with a laugh and an eye roll that New York’s irrepressible senior senator, Chuck Schumer, was center stage at the Waldorf Astoria reception, “thanking everybody for showing up. He was greeting everybody at the hotel!”
The third reason Catsimatidis would want to own the News—or at least be acknowledged as a potential newspaper baron—is that, after his four-decade race to the top, he’s getting restless and wants to spice up his life. That was the main impetus of his mayoral campaign, after all.
“It’s a fork in the road,” he told me two years ago. “You know what a fork is? I’m 64 years old. You hit 64 and you start having soul-searching. Everybody experiences it. I’m looking for a new career.”