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Axel Springer, KKR considering split of German media giant, sources say

By Klaus Lauer

(Reuters) -German media giant Axel Springer, which owns Germany's popular Bild tabloid and U.S. news site Politico, is considering a split of the company together with private equity KKR, two sources familiar with the matter said on Friday.

A potential deal would separate its media assets from its digital classifieds operation, handing the former to CEO Mathias Doepfner and the founder's widow Friede Springer, and the latter to KKR and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, the sources said.

The Financial Times first reported on the break-up talks.

The sources told Reuters this was the most likely plan but that many details remained open. It was unclear when a decision would be taken.

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Axel Springer founded the company in 1946 and grew it into a sprawling empire encompassing influential right-leaning media titles as well as a portfolio of classifieds websites, including jobs platform Stepstone and real estate ads unit Aviv.

Billionaire Doepfner took the helm in 2002. Most recently he has overseen Springer's ambitions to break into the field of artificial intelligence, including with a partnership with OpenAI's ChatGPT model.

The planned split would not necessarily mean that Springer would be excluded from the highly profitable classifieds business, the sources said. They declined to be identified as they are not permitted to disclose details of the talks.

Taking control of the unit could help pave the way for KKR to begin exiting its investment five years after it partnered with Doepfner to take Axel Springer private, they said.

Springer's planned listing of Stepstone, currently on pause due to the Ukraine war and difficult market conditions, is not off the table, according to the sources.

Aviv is considered another potential IPO candidate but needs more time, they said.

KKR became the biggest shareholder of Axel Springer in 2019 and currently owns a 35.6% stake, while the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board owns a 12.9% stake.

A spokesperson for Axel Springer said all shareholders have been highly satisfied with Axel Springer's progress since 2019, but declined further comment.

"Together we have made significant progress against Axel Springer's digital and international ambitions, and believe in the continued success and growth of the business," a KKR spokesperson told Reuters.

Springer's acquisition of Politico for $1 billion in 2021 marked the German company's shift towards the U.S. market.

Should the break-up deal free up funds for investment, this would likely flow primarily into the U.S. rather than the German media market, one of the sources said.

Responding to rumours of an interest in buying the Wall Street Journal, both sources said this was not currently an issue and the newspaper was not for sale. However, if it were to become available, Springer would look into it, they said.

($1 = 0.9203 euros)

(Reporting by Harshita Mary Varghese and Klaus Lauer in Berlin; Writing by Rachel More; Editing by Shailesh Kuber, David Evans and Arun Koyyur)