Wasserstein Cuts His Daily Deal

On the evening of Sept. 16, about 600 of Bruce Wasserstein’s closest friends and fellow deal makers will gather in the Pool Room of the Four Seasons to celebrate the Sept. 15 launch of The Daily Deal , a new tabloid chronicling the world of doing deals. The Pool Room is a fancy place for a trade-paper party, but this is a trade paper with pretensions. Like its founder, it wants to matter and become grand, not just make money or traffic in information. “This will be the newspaper of record for deal makers around the world,” said Bill Pollak, the chief executive of American Lawyer Media Inc.

The Daily Deal is an American Lawyer Media publication, shepherded by the company’s publishers, editors and strategic planners, but it is Bruce Wasserstein’s beast. Two years ago, a fund controlled by Wasserstein Perella Group Inc., his investment banking firm, bought American Lawyer Media, then added The National Law Journal and the New York Law Journal . This collection of legal publications (21 in all) gave Mr. Wasserstein a launching pad for his media mogul fantasies, whatever they were. (Mr. Wasserstein did not return calls for comment.)

As it turns out, the rumpled 51-year-old investment banker wanted to do a daily newspaper, a rigorous record of deals as procedure. Ideally, the paper would describe his world and simultaneously help him rise above it. As the spirit presiding over a must-read, he would become the spirit presiding over its readers. And as a Wall Street personality and product of the 80′s who had both benefited from and been buffeted by press coverage, he would satisfy that yearning so many news subjects seem to have to control the media, be the media.

Mr. Wasserstein is a deal geek who nevertheless aspires to some measure of cultural greatness. But his thing is transactions. Mr. Wasserstein seems to be on a campaign to cast himself as the avatar of the deal, as though in anticipation of some distant era when economic historians will reduce the last quarter of the 20th century, the I-Banker Period, down to one or two memorable, well-documented legends. He wants to be that guy. First, last summer, there was his book, Big Deal , a kind of textbook. There it was, on beaches and in bookshop windows, aligning the author with the craft of the deal. And what a nifty juxtaposition, right there on the cover in silver and blue and in all capital letters: “Bruce Wasserstein Big Deal.”

Then, also last summer, Mr. Wasserstein, a fan of Daily Variety , convinced executives at American Lawyer Media to start developing a daily trade paper that would serve his peers, the people who get a thrill, or at least a living, out of the buying and selling of companies. The executives were hesitant. A daily paper for a narrow audience, in a competitive category, sounded like a real money pit. But Mr. Wasserstein pulled rank.

“Bruce had a number of people working for him whose first and second reactions were, ‘This can’t work. It’s too expensive and the market’s not big enough,’” said one executive familiar with The Daily Deal ‘s inception. “But Bruce kept saying, ‘Stop telling me how it won’t work, because we’re gonna do it. Tell me how we’re gonna make it work.’ He persisted in the face of the people who were crunching the numbers.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s his baby,” said Jack Berkowitz, the vice president for strategic planning at American Lawyer Media. “It came out of his idea. He was absolutely the motivator. He said, ‘Here’s the concept, go do it.’ There was no opposition, though there was definitely skepticism. Nobody thought it was stupid. His first idea actually was to do something for the corporate lawyer and the deal lawyer, with some tangential readership in the banking community. But at some point we realized it was a publication for the deal-making community.”

This is their newly minted demographic, a superset of corporate lawyers, accountants, investment bankers, venture capitalists, chief executives-anyone, basically, who makes a living feeding off corporate America’s endless reshuffling of capital and debt. As a group these people don’t have a trade paper, as the entertainment community does with Variety . Mr. Wasserstein believed that these constituents would share his appetite for the arcana of the deal, the nuts-and-bolts tactics and the smaller transactions that don’t make it into The Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times . A heady mix of gossip and regulatory ramifications! As a recent promotional mailing from the publisher puts it: “From antitrust to tax matters, dead hand pill provisions to cross-border deals, regulatory rulings to corporate governance questions, delayed-redemption provisions to changing securities laws, deal-making today is as complex as it is fascinating.”

American Lawyer Media believes that there are approximately 125,000 who might share that fascination. That’s the deal community: 125,000. But out of the gate, The Daily Deal ‘s publishers are aiming for a circulation of 25,000. Of that, about 10,000 will receive the paper free. The others will have to pay $750 a year, or $3.50 per issue (in theory at least). The paper will come out five times a week. The Web site, for which subscribers will have a password, will be updated three times a day. The paper will be hand-delivered to subscribers, and only in selected cities on the two coasts (plus Chicago).

Last December, they hired an editor, Robert Teitelman, from Institutional Investor , who began assembling a staff comprised mostly of reporters and editors from other financial trades. By August, an editorial staff of about 40 was cranking out semidaily prototypes.

“The big papers have a business audience, and they cover transactions from a shareholder perspective,” Mr. Teitelman said. “At the other pole are lots of smaller publications, like Investment Dealers Digest and Institutional Investor that sort of cater to the Wall Street crowd. What we’ve done is define this community that comes together in deals, a collection of different groups. I don’t think anyone has taken them all and put them under one tent.”

In a prototype dated Sept. 31, this is what you might find in The Daily Deal : Theodore Forstmann’s “biggest equity investment in his fabled buyout career,” China Airlines on the block, the ramifications of the demise of the pooling of interests (that old accounting tactic), an arb spread scoreboard and a ranking of the Top 20 advisers to U.S. target companies (Wasserstein Perella comes in 20th). All of it is presented crisply, in a design that oddly recalls Rolling Stone .

American Lawyer Media is plowing millions of dollars into the new paper. Mr. Berkowitz estimated that by year’s end the company will have spent $4 to 5 million. The budget, as it stands now, is in the “low double-digit millions,” he said. No matter, that’s a lot of money for 25,000, whether or not they’re the right 25,000. It’s an expensive startup, with not much of an apparent upside. It’s not like the ranks of these deal makers are expanding exponentially, or even expanding at all.

“To me, The Daily Deal is the daily disaster,” said Porter Bibb, an investment banker and former journalist. “Despite the fact that there are more and bigger deals in history, the bloom is off the M&A deal making rose. There’s no room for personalities anymore. Even with something like CBS-Viacom, the biggest media deal in history, its not about Sumner Redstone and Mel Karmazin. It’s about a hundred anonymous specialists in tax law, [Securities and Exchange Commission] regulations and other technical skills who made this happen. It’s all banalities.”

Those people are The Daily Deal ‘s ideal readers, but they are also its necessary subjects, which will make for a much less arresting paper. It is a paper for deal geeks. Even if it sells, it will hardly delight, entertain or even instruct, since the arcana of these deals tend not to be applicable to other deals.

On the Street, much of the target audience from Mr. Wasserstein’s line of work is skeptical-of its prospects, and therefore of Mr. Wasserstein’s motives. “It’s Bruce hubris,” said one investment banker. “It’s an ego trip,” said another. “It’s an indulgence,” said a third. They scoffed at this antique-news on paper, delivered by hand-and cited the countless streams of information made available to them each day on their various screens.

But others are preparing to make room for it. “Everyone is gonna have to read it,” said one arbitrageur, whose job it is to gauge the likelihood of deals being completed. “If other guys have it, I have to have it. I hate to admit it, but I think that this thing is gonna be a success.” In other words, it will have to be indispensable, so that even the legions who breezily declare that they don’t have the time will be forced to find a way to make some.

The editors know their readers are busy. “Our window in the morning is about 10 minutes long,” Mr Teitelman said. He and a few other staffers have been making the rounds for months, meeting with potential readers, subjects and sources, trolling for input and leaks. “When we talked to bankers and lawyers and deal makers about patterns of reading, they don’t have a helluva lot of time.”

That may not matter, as long as they subscribe. As someone who was considering taking a job at The Daily Deal was told by one investment banker: “That thing will make money even if nobody reads it.”

Mr. Teitelman laughed when he heard that one. “Hey, no problem,” he said. “That means we get fewer letters. If it makes money, that’s what we’re here for, but we’d like it to be read.”

So, presumably, would Mr. Wasserstein. There are easier ways to make money than by starting a daily newspaper.

Over the course of his career as one of Wall Street’s most successful deal makers, Mr. Wasserstein has been both the media’s darling and its whipping boy. During the 80′s, when he and Joseph Perella made First Boston one of the top firms on the Street, the press helped him build a reputation as the father of modern M&A. But as many of the deals he put together foundered early this decade, he got labeled with the nickname “Bid-’em-up Bruce,” referring to his penchant for urging clients to spend lavishly to get deals done (and thereby secure his fees). Through it all, he became known for leaking information strategically to the press. He understood the media, and used it to make himself one of the legends of the 80′s. He also had an enduring interest in journalism, dating back to his days as a reporter at the Michigan Daily , the college paper at the University of Michigan. (He spent the summer of 1969 as a reporter-researcher at Forbes .)

“I remember Bruce showing me how to write editorials,” said Jim Gaines, editor of Travel & Leisure Golf and a former managing editor at Time , Life and People , who spent a semester working on the Michigan Daily with Mr. Wasserstein. (They went to high school together, too, at McBurney School on the Upper West Side.) After Michigan, Mr. Gaines didn’t run into Mr. Wasserstein until 1989, when Mr. Gaines was managing editor of Life and Mr. Wasserstein was advising Time Inc. in its $13.4 billion bid for Warner Communications. “I said, ‘You’re doing well,’ and he said, ‘We try.’ I remember [Time Warner chief executive] Jerry Levin telling me: ‘Bruce would rather have your job than his.’ So I guess it was a bug that never left him.”