Showing posts with label finance. Show all posts
Showing posts with label finance. Show all posts

3/1/12

Changing social power is reflected in the sales of newspaper offices

Newspapers across the US are shedding large downtown buildings in favor of more modest facilities, often away from the center of cities.

The downsizing is the consequence of reduced need for office space following staff cuts, changes in production technologies that reduce space requirements, and the outsourcing many printing and distribution activities. Examples include:
  • The Miami Herald has sold its bayfront building and the 14 acres around it for $236 million and is planning to relocate elsewhere next in 2013. It will use the proceeds to pay down debt and pension liabilities.
  • The Ft. Worth Star-Telegram has sold its home for the past 90 years and will be moving to new offices this spring
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  • The Boulder Daily Camera in Boulder, CO, sold its downtown facilities for $9 million and is moving to facilities outside the center of town.
  • The Tribune & Georgian in St. Mary’s, GA, shed its former building by donating it to United Way of Camden Country in February to be used for work space and a training resource center for charitable organizations. The paper no longer used the building because it had moved to other facilities after outsourcing its printing operations.
The changes are not just indicative of the changing financial and operational characteristics of newspapers, but of the position of newspapers as major institutions in society. Over the past 150 years, newspapers used the wealth they generated to construct buildings in the center of towns—sometimes monumental and architecturally significant edifices—that reflected their importance and power in the community and their location at the center of society.

Social, economic, and technology developments have stripped that wealth from the newspaper industry. But cities are also changing and many downtown areas are no longer the locus of economic and political power in communities. As we continue to move more firmly into the digital age, the physical manifestations of where the center of society is located will continue to change.

Changes in media and media industries reflect deeper social changes that will continue altering our lives in may ways for many years to come.

10/4/10

Newspaper Companies Start to Think Beyond Today's Bills

The somewhat improving condition of the newspaper industry is permitting companies to move from merely paying operating expenses to finding ways to improve their balance sheets and looking for new opportunities. In recent weeks:
  • The Gannett Co. has placed senior notes totally $500 million that will be due in 2015 and 2018. The notes financed at 6.375% and 7.125% will give the company some financial breathing space by being used to pay a maturing loan and revolving credits. In addition it negotiated an extension on $2.7 billion in revolving credit with Bank of America from 2012 to 2014.
  • The New York Times Co. has cut its debt by 40 percent in past 2 years and is beginning to look at small investments in digital media that may position it for future growth. It recently provided $4 million in financing for Ongo, a start-up news sharing site that will aggregate stories from a number of newspapers.
  • The Washington Post Co. announced it would repurchase 750,000 of its outstanding shares. Such a move will increase future earnings per outstanding share and boost shareholder equity in a tax beneficial way. This type of buyback typically occurs when cash is accumulating in the company and its stock is undervalued.
All of these developments reflected the improving financial performance of newspaper companies and indications that the revenue picture for newspapers is getting better. With improved profits and dividend payments, newspaper companies, lenders, and investors are starting to step back from the brink and the reconsider the completely negative picture of newspapers that developed 3 years ago.

8/21/10

Bankrupt Newspapers Leave Employee Unions and Government Corporation Holding the Pension Bills

It has not been a good month for newspaper unions at bankrupt newspaper companies or the government corporation that insures pension funds. As part of their reorganizations, a number of bankrupt newspaper firms are not paying money owed union pensions or are quietly letting the guaranty pick up the tab for retiree costs.


  • Unions of Philadelphia Newspapers LLC (The Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News) were forced to accept 12 cents on the dollar for the $12 million the bankrupt company owned to employee pension plans as part the reorganization plan.
  • The Chicago Sun-Times off-loaded $49.1 million of its underfunded pension obligations for 2300 retirees and employees to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. The paper and it suburban subsidiaries were purchased out of bankruptcy without the new owners assuming the pension obligations.
  • The Dayton News Journal dumped $15.4 million in underfunded pensions payments on the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. , which will ensure 1,100 current and former employees receive benefits owed to them. The newspaper and its assets were purchased out of bankruptcy by Halifax Media, but it did not take on the pension liability.

The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. is a federal corporation designed to protect pensions when company-run pension funds collapse or cannot pay agree benefits.

These types of problems occur when money due for benefits is not paid into pension funds or money is removed from company-run funds by the company. When this occurs companies use the money for other purposes: increasing liquidity, paying bills, giving executive bonuses, etc. However, this creates problems if the company ceases operating or if liabilities of underfunded pension obligations weigh too heavily on the balance sheet.

Existing laws allows employers to take money from company-run funds if they are overfunded, but do not require them to immediately fully fund them when they are underfunded. Overfunding and underfunding, however, are normal conditions caused by fluctuations in stock and bond markets in which pension funds are invested. Because overfunding and underfunding tend to even out over time, companies using the funds like a bank can create problems. Even when pension funds are not run by companies, delays in paying obligations create problems if the company closes or goes into receivership.

Newspapers across the U.S. have carried large stories about pension payment problems at other bankrupt companies, but coverage of the problems at their newspaper colleagues have drawn scant attention.

9/26/09

PUBLISHERS URGE MORE PUBLIC AID FOR NEWSPAPERS, BUT H.R. 3602 WON'T SOLVE THEIR PROBLEMS

The push for government support for newspaper continues and this week publishers and their supporters—including the Newspaper Association of America—went before the House Joint Economic Committee detailing how the current economic climate has harmed their finances and arguing for preferential changes to tax and pension laws. They asked to be allowed to extend application of the net operating loss provisions from 2 years to 5 years and for changes in laws to allow them to underfund pension funds for a greater period of time. Both would improve their operating performance and balance sheets.

This is a case of the newspaper industry seeking long-term business benefits to solve a short-term crisis caused by poor management decisions and the recession. The leading newspaper firms and their representatives are making concerted efforts to dupe legislators and the public into believing their troubles are part of the general trends in the industry, rather than the result of management decisions and the financial crisis that is diminishing. If the provisions are passed, the public treasury will be diminished for years to come and risks for employee pensions will be increased.

Newspaper executives and other witnesses were sympathetically treated at the hearing this week, but it is unclear whether they will be able to achieve the policies they advocated.

Another proposal that the commercial firms are uninterested in themselves, but expressed sympathy for, would broadening laws regarding charities to include not-for-profit newspapers. Their support was astute because the House Joint Economic Committee’s chair, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), has introduced her own bill (H.R. 3602) to allow newspapers to become tax exempt under section 501(C)(3) of the tax code. Her bill somewhat mirror Senate bill 673 by Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., that was discussed earlier in this blog (Analysis of the Newspaper Revitalization Act, http://themediabusiness.blogspot.com/2009/03/analysis-of-newspaper-revitalization.html). There are some differences in Maloney’s bill that need to be highlighted.

Under Section (b) of H.R. 3602, companies would qualify for tax exempt status through a 3-part test.

First, companies would have to be “publishing on a regular basis a newspaper of general circulation” to qualify. This provision stipulates no periodicity so it does not limit qualification to dailies, which are experiencing the greatest economic and financial difficulties. This language provides the exemption only to established papers and would thus exclude startups until after they were regularly publishing, requiring startups to initially obtain financing through other than tax-deductible donations.

The language in this first test requires that publications be “a newspaper of general circulation” and this will lead to questions whether it applies to newspapers focused on specific audiences in a community—such as African Americans or senior citizens—or papers providing more focused content—such as news and information for a specific neighborhood or devoted solely to politics or crime. This ambiguity could be used by IRS examiners against some papers and could be used by some publishers to take advantage of a policy not intended for them.

The second provision requires that qualifying papers publish “local, national or international stories of interest to the general public and the distribution of such newspaper is necessary or valuable in achieving an educational purpose.” The provision regarding type of coverage is better than the Senate bill because it does not require publication of all 3 types of news—something not done in many local papers.

The third provision requires that content preparation “follows methods generally accepted as educational in character.” This provision is exceedingly vague and its application is unclear because it does not deal with the content of the paper, but with the preparation of the paper. How “the preparation of the material” follows accepted educational methods would seem to require that the papers be part of an educational activity, such as being linked to training in schools or universities. This would highly limit the applicability of the bill to existing newspaper operations.

Like the Senate bill, Section (c) permits papers to carry advertising “to the extent that such newspaper does not exceed the space allotted to fulfilling the educational purposes of such qualified newspaper corporation.” This would require papers to publish no more than an equal amount of editorial and advertising content. This is lower than the limit of postal service limit (75%) and would force most existing papers to drop about 1/3 of their existing advertising or incur damaging costs by printing more news pages than they do now. This would cripple the finances of any daily paper.

Finally, Section (d) of the legislation permits qualified companies to accept tax deductable charitable donations to support their operations.

This bill, like its Senate predecessor, is likely to have limited affects on the newspaper industry because it will not interest newspaper owners because most of their papers are producing profits and it will preclude their abilities to benefit from greater profits when the advertising recovery occurs.

There is a place for not-for-profit media and journalism, but H.R. 3602 S. 673 will not do much to improve coverage or the overall condition newspaper industry. It is likely to continue to gain support from the commercial newspaper industry, however, because it can be used to provide cover for government policies that they really want.

8/14/09

JOURNALISM STARTUPS ARE HELPFUL, BUT NO PANACEA FOR NEWS PROBLEMS

One of the most exciting developments in journalism is the widespread appearance of online news startups. These are taking a variety of not-for-profit and commercial forms and are typically designed to provide reporting of under-covered communities and neighborhoods or to cover topics or employ journalistic techniques that have been reduced in traditional media because of their expense.

These initiatives should be lauded and supported. However, we have to be careful that the optimism and idealism surrounding these efforts not be imbued with naïveté and unbridled expectation. All these initiatives face significant challenges that require pragmatism in their organization and sober reflection about their potential to solve the fundamental problems in the news industry today.

We need to recognize that these online initiatives are not without precedent. We can learn a great deal about their potential from other community- and public affairs-oriented media endeavors. Community radio, local public service radio and television, public access television, and not-for-profit news and public affairs magazines have existed for decades and provide some evidence about the potential of the startups. Most rely heavily on the same types of foundation, community support, and membership financial models that startups are employing and this gives them a head start in the competition of those resources.

Despite sharing fundamental objectives and goals, these existing news and public affairs enterprises exhibit wide differences in the services they provide and their effectiveness in offering them. Many suffer from precarious financial conditions.

For the most part, such initiatives are highly dependent upon volunteer labor, individuals with the best of intentions who contribute time and effort. Those who manage the operations must expend a great deal of effort to train, coordinate, motivate and support these volunteers. This incurs cost and takes time from other activities.

Most of the organizations operate with highly limited staffs of regularly employed personnel and this is especially true in news operations. Professional journalists working in these organizations tend to be poorly paid; few have health and retirement benefits; most do not have libel insurance that protects aggressive and investigative reporting; few have access to resources to invest time and money in significant journalistic research. The consequence of these challenges is that there tends to be high turnover because the operations typically rely on young journalists who use the organizations to gain professional experience and then move on to better funded or commercial firms.

The community and public affairs operations also exhibit widely disparate size and quality in their journalistic activities. Even most affiliates of National Public Radio—which is generally considered the most successful of non-commercial news operations—tend to have small and relatively undistinguished news operations. Most rely upon the exceptional content of the national organization, large metropolitan affiliates, and the best of the content collectively produced by other local affiliates. Affiliates with larger news staffs and quality tend to be limited to those linked to university journalism programs or in the best-funded metropolitan operations.

The challenges faced in these organizations should not deter the establishment of new online initiatives or keep the rest of us from supporting them. We need to be realistic about their potential, however. In the foreseeable future these startups will tend to supplement rather than to replace traditional news organizations. They may be part of the solution to the problem of news provision, but they alone are not the remedy.

4/26/09

BANKRUPT NEWSPAPERS GIVE EXECUTIVE BONUSES

Failure isn’t what it used to be. Bankrupt newspaper companies are following the lead of AIG and Lehman Brothers and rewarding executives with large bonuses. The Tribune Co. is trying to pay out $13 million in bonuses, the Journal Registers Co. is trying to pay $2 million, and Philadelphia Newspapers has already given hundreds of thousands in bonuses to its corporate officers.

Company spokesmen say the bonuses make good business sense by rewarding good performance and keeping executives from leaving the companies. Both arguments are hollow. The first rationale rewards performance in running the companies into the ground and the retention rationale assumes other newspaper companies are hiring and would want to hire the tainted executives.

The issue of bonuses has emerged because newspapers filing for bankruptcy are not liquidating, but using Chapter 11 to create reorganization plans that will allow them to change the terms of the debt and union contracts. They have to seek approval from the bankruptcy court for their expenditures.

It is true that most of the papers in these bankrupt companies are making operating profits, but their corporate parents are losing money. The fact that profits exist are one of the reasons the companies have been petitioning the bankruptcy courts to allow them to pay bonuses. Not surprisingly, company debt holders—including states that are owned taxes—are not too happy with the idea and employees who have suffered layoffs and wage concessions are rightfully resentful.

The bonus debacle is yet another indication that the bankruptcies were created in the board rooms and corporate offices, not by the economic downturn. Poor corporate and management decisions are their root problem.

The newspaper business is clearly hurting because of the recession, but it is not a unique phenomenon. About once a decade for the past 50 years, recessions have played havoc with newspaper revenues, but the industry has survived them. Poor economic times, however, push companies whose managers have not paid sufficient attention to their balance sheets into financial crises and bankruptcy.

The last time we saw such wholesale problems was in 1991-1993 recession. Ingersoll fell into insolvency in 1991 and was broken up after its use of junk bonds for financing backfired. The New York Daily News went into bankruptcy that year as part of the collapse of the Robert Maxwell house of cards. United Press International went into bankruptcy in that recession as well. All three were victims to poor managerial choices made earlier and their positions became untenable in the recession.

History is repeating itself.

The bankruptcies today are the result of companies surpassing their financial capabilities and because executives have exceeded their own abilities to manage the firms. Some newspaper executives unwisely loaded their companies with enormous debt to make acquisitions and others are in trouble because the cumulative weight of poor management over a period of time has finally caught up with them.

Most newspapers, however, are surviving the downturn and will be serving their communities for many years. They are responding to the poor advertising climate with responsibility and thrift--NOT by giving executive bonuses that should be used for strengthening their businesses.

3/25/09

ANALYSIS OF THE NEWSPAPER REVITALIZATION ACT

The Newspaper Revitalization Act introduced by Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., would permit newspapers to operate as not-for-profit entities under the tax code and is being heralded by some observers as a means of saving newspapers, much as was the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970. Good purposes aside, it is useful to study the act to determine whether it will actually accomplish the goals that are stated as its rationale.

The bill is a small bill, about 435 words, that would amend the IRS Code of 1986 to permit newspapers to be given 501(c)(3) status, thus obtaining tax exempt status and the ability to accept charitable contributions. Currently tax laws do not permit newspapers to be operated tax exempt, but they do have mechanisms that permit foundations to own them or support them financially.

Paragraph (b)(1) of the bill would allow general circulation newspapers “publishing on a regular basis” to establish themselves as tax exempt organizations. The language does not limit periodicity so daily, bi-weekly, weekly, monthly, and other combinations would be possible. It would thus permit a range of neighborhood and community non-dailies, as well as dailies to use the mechanism.

Paragraph (b)(2) stipulates that the newspaper contain “local, national, and international news stories.” This section is somewhat problematic because non-dailies, particularly neighborhood and community papers, do not typically carry national and international news and nationally oriented dailies do not typically carry local news. The bill contains no provisions that require local creation of content, thus allowing publishers to fill a paper only with syndicated material or other content produced elsewhere.

Paragraph (c) permits advertising, but limits it “to the extent that the space allotted to all such advertisements….does not exceed the space allotted to fulfilling the educational purpose of such qualified newspaper corporation.” This provision is apparently intended to ensure advertising does not dominate the content and effectively limits advertising to 50 percent of the content. This provision, however, is problematic because daily newspapers and most non-dailies currently contain two-thirds to three-quarters advertising. Indeed the regulations governing Post Office (USPS) distribution limit advertising to 75 percent.

The bill does not require that newspapers have paid subscriptions or even requests to receive the paper, as do USPS regulations, so it would apply free circulation papers.

By giving not-for-profit status to newspapers, the bill would also make the paper eligible for USPS not-for-profit rates, which would permit lower postal delivery rates for such papers than those afforded for-profit papers. This might raise issues regarding the fairness of competition if commercial publishers exist in the market

It should also be noted that the bill makes no provision to limit payments to publishers and editors. This creates the potential for some abuse. A small commercial publisher could use the mechanism to become “non profit” to avoid company taxes by not taking compensation from profits but taking a higher salary instead—effectively letting tax payers subsidize his/her income.

One drawback of using 501(c)(3) status is that entities are not permitted to engage in direct political activities, such as endorsing candidates for local, state, or national office or possibly even taking positions on governmental proposals. This would somewhat limit the scope of content and could lead to IRS investigations if complaints were made to the IRS that a paper was taking sides, was too conservative or liberal, or evidenced some other kind of agenda that was deemed political activity.

It appears that the overall effect of the bill would be limited. It will be appealing to very few dailies and most neighborhood and community papers will have difficulties complying with its content and advertising requirements. Even with tax exempt status, the costs of creation, publishing, distribution of a newspaper probably can not be covered by many publishers with a 50 percent ad limit, unless they are especially effective at raising charitable contributions over time.

The bill appears to be well intentioned, however, it can not solve the problem it purports to address in its current form and creates potential for some abuse.

3/10/09

THE DEAD AND THE DYING

Judging from the continuing panicked commentary by big media journalists and commentators, newspapers are dead and dying. They are comatose, the family is gathering at the bedside, and quiet discussions are taking place about whether to disconnect them from life support.

Walter Isaacson writing in Time Magazine last week told us that “the crisis in journalism has reached meltdown proportions” and that we can save newspapers by starting to make micropayments for articles we read online.
http://www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1877191-4,00.html

David Carr, writing in New York Times, this week tells us that a “digitally enabled free fall in ads and audience now has burly guys circling major daily newspapers with plywood and nail guns.” We need to start charging for news, forcing aggregators to pay, turn away from ad support, and start thinking about new ways of collaboration even if they require a new antitrust exemption.
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/09/business/media/09carr.html?emc=eta1

Jonathan Zimmermann writing in Christian Science Monitors tells us “The American newspaper is dead.” And that we can save its functions by having professors write for the public.
(http://news.yahoo.com/s/csm/20090309/cm_csm/yzimmerman)

Nickle and dime-ing readers like the airlines? Special treatment from the government? Relying on professors to tell us what's going on? Have journalists gone mad?

It some ways they have. They are panicking at problems in big city media and ignoring the fact that most newspapers are relatively stable and reasonably healthy. The only newspapers experiencing serious competitive difficulties are those in the top 25 markets (about 1 percent of the total) and these are joined in suffering by corporate newspaper companies whose executives have made serious managerial mistakes.

Journalists are sometimes their own worst enemies, and this is one such time. Through overly pessimistic outlooks and sweeping generalization, they may be hastening the obituaries of some weak papers by making readers and advertisers think their serve no purpose today.

Discussion of the newspaper industry’s situation is confused because many observers do not separate its short-term problems with the economy from the challenges of long-term trends. Then they compound that problem by using papers as examples of industry developments that are unrepresentative because of their market situations and managerial errors.

Most newspapers continued making profits up to the current financial crisis and many papers whose parents went into bankruptcy were doing likewise. They will make profits again when the recession ends as they have done in the past.

The Rocky Mountain News did not die because the newspaper industry is in trouble, but because it was the secondary paper in the market and the joint operating agreement was not enough to save it. Several other JOA papers are on their way to oblivion for the same reasons. The Journal Register Co. and Tribune Co. went into bankruptcy not because its newspapers were unable to survive but because its management took on far too much corporate debt.

Clearly, large metro papers are suffering from the effects of competition from television, cable, and Internet. But that same pain is not being felt by most of the nation’s papers that operate in small and mid-sized towns and are the primary or only significant provider of news in their communities. They will continue to survive for many years because their content is unique and because their local advertisers are not well served by other media options.

What we need is a dose of realism in the discussion of the journalistic situation today. Most papers are NOT in the hospital, let alone comatose. The dead and the dying may be there and if so it is because they can't figure out how to give readers something worth paying for.

1/28/09

NEWSPAPER RESTRUCTURING IS PAINFUL, BUT NECESSARY

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.

1/16/09

BANKRUPTCY AND NEWSPAPER FIRMS

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.

10/27/08

THE CREDIT CRISIS, VOLATILE MARKETS, RECESSION AND MEDIA

The churning flood of economic developments and the desperate measures of governments to lay financial sandbags to control the torrent present not one, but three calamities for media managers. Those that escape one may well be swept away by another.

Most media can survive the collapse of credit markets because media firms have high cash flows are typically require less short term credit than manufacturing and retail firms. Because most can acquire their most important resources without accessing credit lines or issuing commercial paper, banks struggling to keep their heads above water are not a major short-term concern. However, those media firms with large debts due in the short-term that were hoping to refinance face significant hurdles. Some will be rapidly shedding media properties in order to stay afloat.

The more immediate problem for some publicly owned firms is the financial damage caused by the dramatic drop in share prices following the credit market collapse. Because a number of companies use debt financing linked to the value of their shares, the drop in prices makes their debt more risky and thus triggers automatic increases in interest rates and debt payments. This puts even more financial pressure on the firms and is sweeping them along with the flood.

Media firms that escaped the rising financial damage of the first two problems are nonetheless being sucked into the swirling waters of a recession. Because manufacturers are cutting production and laying off workers and because credit is tightening and making it harder for consumers to buy, advertising expenditures are eroding rapidly. Further, consumer spending and confidence are directly related to sales of media products so one can expect declines in sales of media hardware, recordings, books, and other products as well as consumers concentrate their expenditures on paying mortgages and other debt.

At the moment there is no means to effectively project how deep the recession will be, but whatever the depth it will be difficult for media. In the case of advertising, a 1 percent decline in GDP produces about a 3 to 5 percent decline in advertising. So a 3 percent decline could produce a 15 percent decline in income for many media firms. Print media tend to be most affected by recessions and their declines tend to be 3 to 4 times deeper than television because of differences in the types of advertising they carry.

Media companies that are financially strong will weather the financial storm, but those whose managers leveraged their companies to make acquisitions, those whose owners recently purchased the firms primarily using debt financing, and those that have been poorly managed will be struggling to survive. The current financial storm is a classic example for why conservative financial management of a media firm debt is crucial.

8/17/08

ASK DEEPER QUESTIONS ABOUT FINANCIAL CONDITIONS

Many observers tend to conceive any changes in media businesses as trends that are irreversible or to combine them with other changes to make sweeping generalizations about industry conditions. The results are often wrong and distract observers from asking deeper more appropriate questions about longer-term developments and how media companies use the resources they have.

To understand changes one needs to consider developments separately to determine their origin and expected duration. This allows one to determine what are the result of external trends and what are the result of company choices. Only then can one begin combining them with other observations.

Thus, one needs to consider whether the ratings increase for AMC is due to people spending more watching cable channels or an effect of the AMC's investments in quality programming and the popularity of programs such as Mad Men? If it is the former, one can enjoy benefits with little effort or extra investment; if it is the latter, the company will want to consider additional investments in other programming.

Is the decline in broadcast television advertising in the first half of 2008 a harbinger of a advertisers moving expenditures out of broadcasting or a reflection of the current economy and the condition of the automobile industry and its declining ad budget? If it is the first, long-term trouble is brewing and companies will need to give significant thought to their business models and cost structures. If it is the latter, the financial difficulties caused by the reduction may be short- to mid-term and will merely have to be endured until conditions improve.

Is the decline the in national newspaper advertising the result of reduced spending by advertisers or because of changes in the number of national advertisers and the ways they allocate their budgets. The latter requires rethinking income potential and expenditures for selling national advertising, whereas the former will create less longer-term trauma.

Many observers also seem to think that budgets cuts are necessarily bad and unusual for companies, but they are normal occurrences because of the cyclical nature of advertising expenditures. When ad dollars are flowing vigorously, media companies expand their budgets; when that flow lessens, companies reduce their budgets.

What is important about budget cuts is that they be instituted in strategic way to leave the core capabilities of the firm intact so the firm can benefit when conditions change and not miss critical time and financial benefits by having to rebuild those capabilities when better times occur.

It is alo important that budget cuts not be made equally and across the board, but that they be made by clearly analyzing the necessity of existing cost structures and operations. The challenge for many traditional media is that they are labor intensive and labor costs often are the one of the leading portions of their expenses. If one must cut labor, it should be done considering which employees can easily be replaced later, whether all operations, products, and services need to be maintained, and whether outsourcing some functions is an option.

Many companies also forget to look at the top as well as the bottom of their operations when cost cutting occurs. Today, for example, many newspaper companies need to be asking whether expensive corporate offices, private jets, and high corporate salaries and perks are warranted and necessary or if they should cut those corporate expenditures and the management fees they lay on local newspapers to pay for them.

In times of change, one needs clear vision of what is happening to an industry and company and to ask broader questions than are typically asked in firms and by industry observers. Those who do so benefit; those who don't pay a price.

8/1/08

DISSAPEARANCE OF A FINANCIALLY GOLDEN NEWSPAPER PERIOD

Voices in and around the newspaper industry would have us believe the industry is falling apart and taking its last gaps. Investors are fleeing newspaper companies, publishers are decrying the lack of newspaper advertising growth, debt challenges are plaguing many companies, and there are layoffs and buyouts everywhere.

If one rationally looks at the industry, however, one sees that it is fundamentally sound, but that a unique, financially golden period in its history is ending. It is that change which is creating the bulk of the turmoil in the industry, but the biggest problem is that those working in the industry have short memories about the newspaper business and don't remember it any other way.

The generation leading newspapers and newspaper companies today has only experienced a period in which extraordinary growth of advertising increased newspaper revenue across the nation. That growth, combined with the development of local monopolies, created a period that enriched papers highly. This, of course, created great interest in investors and produced capital that allowed public companies to grow and acquire papers, driving up newspaper prices and the value of newspaper assets.

Today, the conditions that drove the growth of the past 3 decades are ending, wealth is being stripped from the industry, investors are losing interest, and publishers are struggling with negative and low growth.

Things are terrible, right? They are worse than every before, aren’t they?

Those views are only true if one takes a limited historical perspective and conceives the industry as a way to riches, something few newspaper owners did in generations past. With the exception of a few major cities, one could not get rich being a newspaper owner. Publishers nationwide could make a living in newspaper, but much of their reward came from being socially influential in the community. Before the extraordinary profitability of the last quarter of the 20th century, newspapers were relatively unprofitable and breaking even was the primary financial goal of most publishers.

Contemporary developments are taking us back toward that situation, but even with the u-turn in the business, we need to recognize that newspaper revenue today is better than it was in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. In fact, adjusted for inflation, newspapers in 2007 had two and a half times the advertising income that they had in 1950. In terms of employment, there are still twenty percent more journalists working in newspapers than in the highly profitable years that fueled the growth of corporate newspapering.

Those working in the newspaper industry need to be realistic and understand what the effects of contemporary changes mean. They don’t mean disaster, but they mean changes in the business of newspapers, the way the industry has operated for the past three decades, and how they need to perceive the industry.

7/26/08

THE GROWING OWNERSHIP OF PRIVATE EQUITY IN MEDIA

The privatization of Clear Channel Communications ends a 2-year effort to buyout the leading radio and outdoor advertising firm. The $17.9 billion buyout by Bain Capital and Thomas H. Lee Partners allows the new owners the opportunity to pursue strategies with less influence from unpredictable investors pursuing short-term interests. The sale comes amid heavy competition in terrestrial and satellite radio, but provides the new owners more flexibility in deciding how to best operate the 900 radio stations, radio programming services, and subsidy that owns one million outdoor ad locations.

The sale is just one more in a growing trend for private equity purchases of media firms. Their interest in media companies stems from the fact that the market value of many does not reflect the underlying cash flows and asset values or the mid- to long-term prospects of the firms.

The valuation challenge of media occurs in good part because advertising expenditures are not evenly distributed throughout the year and because advertising revenue is significantly affected by fluctuations in the economy. These variations create significant disquiet among stock market investors because they make revenue, returns, and dividends less predictable in the short term.

These realities—combined with unproven beliefs of many investors that new media are displacing all mature media and making growth in their businesses impossible—reduce the valuation of media stocks and make media firms attractive to private equity firms that think about the businesses in terms other than quarterly performance.

4/22/08

THE CAPITAL CRISIS IN THE NEWSPAPER INDUSTRY DEEPENS

Recent weeks have not been kind to newspaper company finances, with lost value and unhappy investors plaguing publicly traded firms.

The Journal Register Co. was delisted from New York Stock Exchange because it share price remained below $1, reducing its market capitalization about $12 million, less than one-fifth the capitalization required to be traded on the big board. The Sun-Times Media Group stock also continued trading below $1 and its market capitalization dropped to $61 million, drawing a delisting warming from the New York Stock Exchange.

Although those firms have hardly been notable as the best managed firms in recent years, their problems in inspiring investors are symptomatic of difficulties facing newspaper firms in the market.

Meanwhile, Moody’s Investors Service lowered the New York Times and McClatchy Co. debt ratings and lowered the Gatehouse Media even further in the junk category.

Other firms are also having problems with capital related issues. Rumors are rampant that the Sulzberger family is seeking new protective mechanisms or partners for the New York Times Co. following its continued battles with shareholders and dissident shareholders gaining seats on the company board. A similar ugly proxy battle is underway at Media General.

About a half dozen public firms have now hired advisors to determine their “strategic options,” the business euphemism for seeing if there is any hope of selling properties, restructuring, or getting out of the business.

All this is happening not because the newspaper industry is untenable—public companies return an average of 17 percent last year—but because most are carrying enormous debt and have no believable plans for future growth and development. As a result, investors are demanding cost cutting, debt reduction, strong returns, and high dividends so they can recoup their investments.

The trouble with this scenario is that it continues stripping newspaper companies of the resources they need to develop new initiatives and businesses should their management gain some vision, become entrepreneurial, and have some inspired ideas that might enthuse investors.

What newspaper companies badly need today are not mere managers, but company leaders with the strength, enthusiasm, and vision to rebuild their companies. If they don’t start soon, they will lose too many resources to be able to do it in the future.