The Hill’s owner seeks potential buyers, investors

By Daniel Lippman and Tina Nguyen

Jimmy Finkelstein, owner of The Hill, is shopping his publication, whose op-eds alleging various conspiracy theories about Ukraine have been at the center of Donald Trump’s impeachment scandal, to various media owners, either as investors or potential buyers, according to six people familiar with the matter.

The asking price for The Hill, which was co-founded by Finkelstein’s father over 25 years ago, is $100 million, according to two of the people. Finkelstein told another person that he ideally wants much more — up to $300 million.

“If somebody wants to pay it, he’ll sell it, but it’s not going to sell for nickels and dimes,” said the person, who discussed the $300 million figure with Finkelstein within the past year. “If it’s a big number, I’m sure he’ll be interested.”

Finkelstein, in an interview, called the premise of the story “not true” but would not elaborate. He acknowledged having hired the boutique investment firm Methuselah Advisors, which specializes in large media transactions and has made inquiries to several large media companies. He said he has had Methuselah “on retainer for quite some time to evaluate media opportunities and evaluate incoming offers that we get regularly.”

Either Finkelstein or his representatives approached James Murdoch about The Hill, according to a person familiar with the matter, who declined to comment on whether Murdoch was interested in buying the publication.

In recent months, The Hill has been cast in a critical spotlight because of columns by the conservative journalist and former Hill TV executive John Solomon, including one that challenged former Vice President Joe Biden's account of his dealings with Ukrainian officials.

Solomon’s claims — which have been disputed by U.S. officials and in testimony on Capitol Hill helped to fuel an investigation by President Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, after which Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine while demanding that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky launch a probe of the Bidens. The House investigation into the matter led to Trump’s impeachment, and at least one Democratic House representative said she would no longer talk to reporters from The Hill because of Solomon’s work.

Bob Cusack, executive editor of The Hill, announced in early December that the publication was reviewing Solomon’s stories and columns, amid serious questions about their accuracy and an uproar among the publication’s reporters. Cusack, who has said the review eventually will be made public, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Solomon has long maintained that he stands by the accuracy of his columns.

Finkelstein has been one of Giuliani’s best friends for many years, according to a former Giuliani associate. CNN reported last year that Finkelstein often boasted that he was friends with Trump as well, and that his wife once hosted a baby shower for Melania Trump. Trump himself has acknowledged this relationship, according to CNN, once asking a Hill reporter who interviewed him to “[t]ell Jimmy I said hello.”

Even disregarding the controversy over Solomon’s columns, a media investor familiar with The Hill noted that its advertiser-based business model would not be attractive for many potential buyers or investors. “No publication that does serious journalism has been able to make it on advertising” alone in recent years, the investor said, pointing to properties like Vice and Vox Media, which suffered similar problems.

Finkelstein strongly disputed that The Hill is in poor financial shape. “The Hill is highly profitable with strong revenue growth for many years” and said the company plans on expanding its editorial staff in the coming year.

Amid the controversy over Solomon’s columns, Finkelstein’s close relationship with the Trumps has come under closer scrutiny. According to CNN, Finkelstein frequently talks to Hill editors about Trump coverage, and intervenes in news coverage if he thinks it portrays the president too negatively. “Getting a phone call from Trump would fill him with joy,” one former employee told CNN.

The relationship went both ways. A senior employee at The Hill told POLITICO that Finkelstein attended the second presidential debate in 2016 as a guest of the Trump campaign, to the consternation of the newsroom’s leadership. “Luckily no one caught it. But it’s weird to have the owner of a D.C. publication sitting there, in the row behind the president’s family, during a presidential debate,” said this employee.

Finkelstein said in response that he was a registered Democrat “and although I do know The President and Giuliani, I am close to as many, if not more Democrats.” He did not address newsroom concerns about his attendance at the debate.

Finkelstein had once held an extensive media portfolio as the co-founder of the Prometheus Media Group, which purchased The Hollywood Reporter, Billboard and Adweek for $70 million in 2009. In 2013, Finkelstein’s co-investors in Prometheus bought him out of the company, reportedly in response to ballooning costs and little growth under his leadership.

Finkelstein also inherited the Manhattan-based media conglomerate News Communications from his late father, Jerry Finkelstein, which included a number of New York publications, as well as The Hill. Between 2001 and 2007, Finkelstein sold every property in News Communications except for the Hill to various New York insiders, including former Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.).

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross once owned a substantial stake in News Communications, long before Ross entered the Trump administration, according to two people familiar with the matter and a statement released when he made the purchase in 1996.

According to the people familiar with the matter, Ross expected that the company would help his wife at the time, Betsy McCaughey Ross, then New York’s lieutenant governor, gear up for a failed gubernatorial bid. Tom Allon, who was executive vice president of News Communications, wrote in City and State last year that McCaughey Ross would call him almost every week asking him to run columns of hers in the local papers, and once threatened him by asking him: “Should I call Wilbur and tell him to force you to run my column today?”

In 2002, media mogul Conrad Black bought a controlling interest in The Hill and several local Hamptons publications for $20 million, only for Finkelstein eventually to take back control later. (In 2019, Trump pardoned Black, a personal friend, who had been convicted of fraud and obstruction of justice in 2007.)

Besides Finkelstein, The Hill has a number of minority investors. John Catsimatidis, the billionaire owner of Gristedes Foods and a former Republican candidate for New York mayor, has a financial stake in The Hill, according to two people familiar with his stake. As of early 2018, Joshua Harris — a billionaire private equity investor who co-founded Apollo Global Management and is the principal owner of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers — was a minority investor in The Hill, a fact that’s disclosed at the bottom of a 2018 story by the publication.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized a column by John Solomon. The column cast doubt on former Vice President Joe Biden’s account of his dealings with Ukrainian officials.