With Dean Singleton being promoted out of an operational role and into irrelevance at MediaNews Group, some industry-watchers are speculating that this could be a turning point for newspapers – and maybe a positive one.
Singleton transformed MediaNews from an unknown regional holding company into the country’s sixth largest newspaper publisher, with weekday circulation of 2.4 million. His able sidekick was the company’s president, Joseph Lodovic, whose financial wizardry enabled much of MediaNews’s growth. When the company entered bankruptcy last year, Singleton and Lodovic engineered a debt-reduction plan that still left them with a significant stake in the company, a rare outcome in a Chapter 11 filing.
Both are now out. Singleton has been promoted into a powerless strategic role and Lodovic has retired. Martin Langeveld, who worked at MediaNews for 13 years, offers a shrewd analysis of the ownership picture of the U.S. newspaper industry. It is now dominated by bankers, hedge funds, investment bankers and others who could care less about public service or journalism. But that’s not necessarily bad.
Langeveld looks at the industry’s ownership map. The majority of newspaper holding companies in the U.S. have experienced one or more bankruptcies over the last five years, leaving control in the hands of creditors and shareholders. Langeveld presents a chart showing who is now in charge at companies like MediaNews, the Philadelphia Media Network, Journal Register Co., Freedom Communications, Tribune Co. and others. It turns out to be a small circle of friends, led by Alden Global Capital, which has stakes in no less than six media companies that are emerging or have emerged from bankruptcy.
Langeveld sees the possibility for a massive consolidation to take place now that so many interlocking directorates are mapping the future of these distressed companies. Which is a good news-bad news scenario. “Strategic geographic consolidations, if operationally led by someone of [Journal Register CDO John] Paton’s caliber, could be a potent force for the rejuvenation of the industry, including a renewed focus on…local journalism,” he writes. But there’s also the pessimistic view, which is that these firms simply get chopped up and sold off piecemeal.
The timing could be good for the dismemberment scenario. After crossing the Valley of Death in 2008 and 2009, most U.S. newspaper companies are once again on stable, if shaky footing and many are profitable again. The Los Angeles Times might even fetch a price of $1 billion, says Sharon Waxman of The Wrap, quoting industry analysts. That would be a shot in the arm to Tribune Co., which could barely even give away its newspaper properties when it was frantically bailing water in the days before it entered Chapter 11. It could also be good news for The New York Times Co., which couldn’t even get $25 million for its distressed New England properties two years ago, but which might be primed to take another run at selling off the Boston Globe.
So investors might choose to get while the getting is good, but they might also opt to stay in for the long haul. Ken Doctor sees the possibility of progress as investors consolidate control. “We’re seeing increasing impatience among the new owners with the old leadership,” he writes on PaidContent.org. “A growing conventional wisdom among them: Too many newspaper CEOs just aren’t moving fast enough to grasp the mostly digital, multi-platform future.” If investors do believe that media companies have a future – and the 2010 recovery in stock values provides at least a glimmer of hope – then they may bring in new management that has a clue about the new media world.
“At Freedom, the new owners brought in as CEO Michael Mitchell Stern, who came from DirecTV,” Doctor recounts. “In Philly, they brought in Greg Osberg as CEO and publisher; Osberg comes both from magazines and digital start-ups. The new Star Tribune owners brought in Mike Klingensmith, a Time Inc. alum. The new formula: out with the newspaper-only people and in with media people.”
Or, as John Paton recently said, “Stop listening to the newspaper people and start listening to the rest of the world.”
A Test for Tablets
The Daily for the iPad is set to launch any day now, and media watchers are abuzz over whether a tablet-only news product that is reportedly backed by $30 million of Rupert Murdoch’s money has a chance.
In case you missed it, The Daily is Murdoch’s bet that tablet owners will pay a buck a week to get a quality news service. He’s reportedly hired 100 journalists, including some well-recognized names, and set in for the long haul. It’s a bit retro, even while being progressive. For example, the text won’t have any hyperlinks and there will be no Web equivalent that readers can share. Apple is helping out by making The Daily a signature product on its new iTunes subscription service.
Ken Doctor hauls out the old spreadsheet and calculates the economics of the venture. He figures that if about .25% of tablet owners opt in for a yearly subscription, The Daily can clear $10 million in annual reader revenue. Can advertising make up the difference? That’s the question, and without any similar products to use for comparison, it’s anybody’s guess. Doctor’s view is that The Daily has a chance, but Murdoch is a risk-taker who has some history of spectacular failures. For Rupert, though, $30 million is pocket change. (Martin Langeveld also shares his thoughts on The Daily over on Quora).
Speaking of subscription fees, speculation over what The New York Times will charge for access to its web content is at a fever pitch. BusinessWeek says the fee will be less than the $19.99 a month the Times charges for its Kindle edition. This is a minor scoop at best, since a Times Co. executive said as much last month. We just wish the Times Co. would announce a pricing plan so we can get some sleep.
Big Pay for Big Names
Conventional wisdom in the journalism business is that new media ventures pay a lot less than the traditional outlets they replace. But that isn’t necessarily true, according to The Wire. The insider-y media site, citing unnamed sources, says that big-name journalists such as the Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz are commanding six-figure salaries at some well-funded websites. Specifically, The Wire says Kurtz is getting a $600,000 salary at Daily Beast, while Tim O’Brien commands $400,000 a year at Huffington Post. “We may be entering a new golden age of journalism, in which the most-talented digital journalists can make way more than their print counterparts ever dreamed of,” writes Henry Blodget.
“Balderdash,” says the Beast. In a rejoinder to Blodget, Beast Executive Editor Edward Felsenthal says he was “flabbergasted to read the salary figures you tossed out for Howie Kurtz.” However, Felsenthal doesn’t provide any guidance on what the Beast is actually paying Kurtz, and HuffPo isn’t talking.
Meanwhile, Blodget takes the opportunity to add The Daily and Bloomberg LLC to the list of generous employers. Bloomberg, he notes, “has quietly become the second-richest and most powerful media organization in the world.”
Does this mean happy days are here again for journalist pay? Not likely. The majority of grunt-level former reporters still say they’re getting half of what they were making in mainstream media, or less. Demand Media, for example, reportedly pays about 10 cents a word for its articles, which are assigned based upon their performance in search results.
This entry was posted on Friday, January 21st, 2011 at 8:14 am and is filed under Business News, BusinessModel, Future of Journalism, Journalism, Murdoch, NewMedia, Newspapers, Paywalls. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.