Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Financial pages are full of developments and changes at newspaper companies and these are being commented upon anxiously by those in the industry. Unpleasant conditions certainly abound, but these development are not indications that the industry is dead or dying in the near future. What they signal is that things which worked in the past are not working now, that newspaper companies are badly in need of restructuring, refocusing, and renewal, and that the boards of the companies and the company managers are taking badly needed action.

The techniques for restructuring are no mystery. First, you need some cash. This can be obtained by attracting new capital through investment or loans. New York Times Co. did this recently by borrowings $250 million from Carlos Slim. Other firms are looking for friendly investors with liquidity.

Another way of raising cash is by turning assets into cash. A classic move made by many types of firms is the sell their building and lease back any space that is needed. Media General and New York Times Co. are currently employing this tactic. Financially troubled companies can also be expected to shed some of their poorest or best performing holdings to raise cash, so it is likely that we will see a number of newspapers companies putting papers up for sale in the near future.

Reducing and restructuring existing debt lessens financial performance pressures on companies. To accomplish it, they use cash that is raised to pay obligations imminently due or to make early partial payments to debt holders in exchange for obtaining better interest rates or lengthening payment terms. Watch for such transactions in the coming months.

As part of restructuring, many newspaper-based companies will seek to refocus on core news and informational activities, divesting non-core activities to raise cash. Baseball teams, holdings in cable systems, advertising service firms, and other types of peripheral companies are being sold or considered for sale.

Few newspaper company executives have experience restructuring and reorganizing their firms to make them leaner and more efficient or strong financial management background. The current environment requires different managerial skills so many newspaper firms will be looking outside the industry for experience. GateHouse Media, for example, has now hired a chief financial officer with a financial management background at companies including PayCheck, NCR , and PriceWaterhouse.

Expect to see multiple actions throughout the industry that are parts of the restructuring of newspaper companies in the coming month. Some will be painful, but will have two effects. First, it will lessen the financial pressures of the debt many companies are carrying. Second, it will force them to rethink their newspapers and the value and quality they are or aren’t providing.

Friday, January 16, 2009


The bankruptcy filings of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Tribune Co. are cast by many as a sign of the continuing decline of the newspaper market. However, it is noteworthy that neither firm is owned by a company with a newspaper heritage, but by firms in the newspaper business primarily for financial gain. The Tribune’s owner is from the real estate business and the Star Trib’s is from private equity.

There is no doubt that the newspaper business is facing a difficult time now, but the business origins of the owners are important because their perceptions of bankruptcy, how the community will react, and how the company will be seen afterwards are colored by the norms and mores of those business fields.

Newspaper companies have long played special roles in communities, exercising social and political influence, and promoting corporate responsibility, accountability, and community standards. Publishers and editors have typically sat with the other civic leaders on boards and committees of chambers of commerce, community development organizations, foundations, and local offices of the United Way and the Better Business Bureau.

The roles and influence of newspaper executives were founded on their standing in the community and of perceptions of their respectability, community interest, and fiscal dependability. Newspaper publishers and editors would loathe any hint of financial instability or impropriety that would mar those views. The reputation of the newspaper and its brand were inextricably linked.

Newspaper companies have survived depressions, recessions, war, and all kinds of economic uncertainty in the past. They did so because they were financially solid companies with equity structures and balance sheets that allowed them survive very uncomfortable financial circumstances. Companies like the Tribune Co. and Star-Tribune are based on weaker foundations and come from cultures in which bankruptcy to reduce debts or abrogate contracts—hurting local businesses and their own employees--is just another business tool.

As I have previously discussed in this blog, there are a number of companies with long newspaper histories that are carrying significant debt or struggling with investors. It will be interesting to see how they handle their economic crises and the efforts they make avoid the stigma of bankruptcy. I suspect most will find other ways of dealing with their financial predicaments--unless they feel that the Star-Tribune and Tribune Co. choices have changed the norms for the entire industry.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


The announcement that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is being put up for sale—a legally required step before shutting down the paper because it is in a joint operating agreement—has stunned many of its journalists. Their reactions, in news stories and their own blogs, reflect the continuing state of denial that their profession exists within a news business affected by financial and economic forces. Or, at least, their belief that it should be immune from them.

It should comes as no surprise that Hearst Corp. is seeking to end publication of the P-I. Its joint operation with Seattle Times has been an unhappy marriage and it has not been financially effective for many years. Changes made in the agreement in recent years have been insufficient to turn the operation around and the paper and JOA operation have continued to be a financial drain on its participants.

A similar offer-for-sale-before-shutting-down process is underway in Denver, where the Rocky Mountain News is likely to cease publication because E.W. Scripps Company is no longer willing to continue bearing its losses.

Joint operating agreements have been seen by many in the industry as a way of keeping two newspapers operating within the same city, but JOAs have been a continual failure since they were authorized in 1970. The biggest problem is that JOAs ignore the basic economics of newspaper publishing and merely provide benefits from a newspaper antitrust exemption that allows collusion on advertising and circulation prices, market division, and other acts prohibited by federal law. Those benefits were never enough to “save” papers in the long run, but allowed publishers to gain a limited period of time to try to squeeze more money out of the operations.

The vast majority of troubled papers in the past 4 decades were never able to get the leading paper in their towns to enter a joint operating agreement and they ceased publication without one. Even the majority of those that entered JOAs saw one paper cease publication. Only 9 JOAs that publish two papers still remain in force and it looks like it will soon be 7.

Two years ago I published a scholarly article on how JOAs end and I warned that Seattle exhibited many of the negative conditions that were likely to lead to its demise. And that was before the economic downturn. Sometimes I hate getting things right.

Link to article Natural Death, Euthanasia, and Suicide: The Demise of Joint Operating Agreements

Thursday, January 8, 2009


There is one upside to all the advertising disappearing from newspapers……Consumers can now really see what they are paying for.

Opps, that’s a BIG downside.

With the effects of economic downturn clearly hitting retailers everywhere, they have slashed their advertising budgets and are advertising as little as possible. For the first time in my lifetime it means you can turn several pages in many newspapers without seeing an advertisement. When I read the Boston Globe on Tuesday (January 7), it essentially had 2 pages of ads in the 10-page A section, 3 pages of ads in the 16-page B section, and 1 page in the 8-page C section. It had no ads on page 1 (although it has been announced they will start doing so soon) and the daily classified section is no longer being published on weekdays. What was left was editorial content. Unfortunately, what was there wasn’t pretty.

In reading the paper I realized that about half the stories were from news agencies and services and that I had read many of them day before on Yahoo! News and the New York Times and Washington Post websites. A number of the paper’s local stories were on the site or other Boston sites before they appeared in print. I am an avid news consumer and love the paper format, but the paucity of original and novel content left me wonder “Why am I still paying for the paper, especially when I have to call at least once a week because of delivery problems.”

I single out the Globe here, but the problem is everywhere I look at newspapers.

Publishers and editors just don’t get it. They have to stop pining that the old days were better and they have to stop blaming everything and everyone but themselves for the lack of value in their papers. What readers need—if they are going to keep buying papers—is content and an experience with news that they cannot get elsewhere. It has to be BETTER than that on TV, Internet, and mobile applications; it has to DIFFERENT than what they get from those sources; and it has to be news for those who LOVE news.

If editors and publishers don’t start delivering those qualities, they will soon have to stop delivering papers altogether.