Gannett Co. Inc. (NYSE:GCI), publisher of USA Today, will pay $1.5 billion in cash for rival Belo Corp. (NYSE:BLC) as falling readership forces legacy newspaper groups to merge, die or evolve into broadcast companies.

The acquisition, announced Thursday, will make Gannett the fourth-largest U.S. owner of major network affiliates.

The acquisition nearly doubles Gannett’s current broadcast portfolio from 23 to 43 stations, including stations to be serviced by Gannett through shared services or similar sharing arrangements. Dallas-based Belo, which began in 1842 as a newspaper company in Texas, owns and operates 20 television stations, nine in the top 25 markets, and their associated websites. Belo stations, which include affiliations with ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and the CW, reach more than 14 percent of U.S. television households.

As part of the deal, Gannett will assume $715 million in debt. The $13.75 per share that Belo holders will receive represents a 28.1 percent premium to the company's closing price on Wednesday.

The boards of both companies unanimously approved the transaction, which is expected to close by year’s end.