Tribune Co. posted a $4.5 billion loss on a massive writeoff of goodwill to reflect the lower value of its newspaper assets. There was no good news in the results. Print revenue was down 15%, classified revenue off 26%, circulation sales down 2%, even online revenue was down 4%. The company’s next move will be to sell the Chicago Cubs, Wrigley Field and possibly its famous headquarters building in Chicago to meet a debt payment. After that, it’s a matter of crossing fingers and hoping that the economy improves enough to make more asset sales possible.
Alan Mutter thinks the Tribune writeoff may be the largest ever by a new owner. He pulls out the calculator and estimates that the value of the company has declined $20 million a day under Sam Zell’s leadership. Of course, Tribune is owned by its employees, so everyone shares Sam’s pain. Only Sam’s not feeling much pain because his highly leveraged position is funded almost entirely by other people’s money. Mutter’s Default-o-Matic ranking now rates Tribune as the company most likely to default on its debt. “At its new Caa2 [junk bond] rating, Tribune’s issues are considered to have a 48.3% chance of not being repaid,” he writes.
Needless to say, the not-so-loyal opposition at Tell Zell finds more to hate in the numbers. Pointing out that Tribune’s investment in its television assets actually increased in the quarter along with revenues, the anonymous blogger comments, “They realize that investing in the product can produce increases in revenue.” True ’nuff, but when a 7% increase in investment yields a 2% increase in sales, that’s the equivalent of selling dollar bills for 95 cents. You’ll sell lots of product and still lose your shirt.
For Zell and crew, this is simply race against time. Ken Doctor sums up the company’s dilemma: It’s bailing water in a rising storm tide and desperately hoping that the storm will stop. The more assets it sells (and there are rumors that the LA Times may be the next big property to go), the fewer resources it has to generate revenue to meet its debt payments. At some point, this model simply collapses.
The only scenarios that can rescue Tribune Co. from ultimate default are either a reinvigoration of the newspaper industry (unlikely) or a turnaround in the real estate market (more likely, but not soon). But with many economists now predicting that the hoped-for 2009 economic turnaround probably won’t happen, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which this company survives intact much beyond the end of next year. What does that mean for all the employee retirement funds being held in the form of Tribune stock?
The heavy debt load borne by many newspaper owners continues to take its toll. Cox Enterprises is looking to sell the Austin (Tx.) Statesman and 28 other regional newspapers in hopes of raising enough money to meet its debt obligations. Cox also owns the better-known Atlanta Journal Constitution but is selling the Statesman because the paper is profitable and may fetch a better price. Don’t count on it, says analyst John Morton. “The sales value of newspapers has probably dropped in half in the last five years,” he’s quoted as saying. “There are a lot of newspapers that are up for sale and there are no takers.” (via Romenesko)
Media Organizations Pull Back on Convention Coverage
Now this is progress. Newspapers are reducing their reporting staffs at the political conventions by up to 20% this summer, apparently in response to the fact that these vacuous, over-scripted media circuses are becoming less and less relevant to an American public that finally has alternatives. The fact that American Idol is the most popular alternative is beside the point.
As we’ve pointed out many times, the practice of sending 15-20 reporters to transcribe the same speeches that the TV cameras are already capturing makes no sense. With both parties’ nominations sewn up months ago, there is nothing happening at these conventions that’s going to make a difference to the democratic process. The most interesting insight to come out of the conventions is the speeches by the up-and-coming party insiders, and those are broadcast anyway.
Interesting tidbit in this story: some 320 bloggers are credentialed for the two conventions this summer, compared to just 42 in 2004. These people are mostly traveling on their own dime and they will work tirelessly because each and every one is competing with all the others. Instead of sending staff reporters to cover the convention, couldn’t newspapers contract with some of these bloggers for exclusive interviews and color pieces? Wouldn’t that be a lot cheaper than paying full-time staff and travel expenses? Is anyone actually doing this? Share your comments.
Wirting in Editor & Publisher, former editor and ad sales rep Maegan Carberry says the unspeakable: journalists have to learn how to help their employers make money. “I was aghast when I asked the (UCLA) Bruin staffers how many of them knew what a CPM (cost per thousand) was and my question was met with resounding silence,” she writes. “Same for an Alexa ranking or Google Analytics. Viewing the news through a myopic editorial lens is prohibitive to success.” Journalism schools still appear to be teaching their students to think of themselves as siloed and separated from the business side, a luxury no one can afford any more. Quoting a colleague, Carberry relates, “The person who figures out the revenue model for 21st century journalism will be a hero in the industry along the lines of Gutenberg with his printing press.”
CNN is actually hiring. It plans to expand its number of bureaus to 20 from 10. Some of these new staff will be what the news network calls “all-platform journalists.” They each get laptops, cameras and online editing tools as well as the capacity to upload video reports from their remote locations. Some may get canteens and K-rations, too. CNN’s SVP of newsgathering insightfully observes, “Everyone’s a reporter now. Even our viewers.”
Tell Zell analyzes a curious list of laid-off staff that was distributed to departing LA Times employees and calculates that older workers were more likely to lose their jobs. Twenty-one percent of workers over 50 were terminated, compared to 10% of workers under 40. Naturally, the entire internal memo is on the site for all to e-mail to their friends.
Blethen Maine Newspapers continues to exemplify the concept of bleeding staff.It’s cutting 20 full- and part-time positions at the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. That’s about 10 percent of the payroll. A lot of the laid-off employees are from the pressroom. Blethen unsuccessfully tried to shore up its business by doing commercial printing work, but that market collapsed as the economy worsened.
The Newspaper Guild is going to become more active in trying to reinvent the industry, says its incoming president. Bernie Lunzer says the union will actively investigate new ownership models, since the old ownership models have failed so badly. “There are non-profits, co-op ownership along the lines of what was used in agriculture for many years,” he tells E&P. And he won’t rule out the possibility that the Guild could take an ownership stake in some concerns. Lunzer says the Guild is also going to take a strong stand in defending newspaper ad salespeople, who are increasingly threatened with a move to 100% incentive-based competition. Fear is not a good motivator for sales people, he says.
In other union news, Philadelphia’s two biggest unions have agreed to forego a $25/week raise they had negotiated for Sept. 1. Members apparently want to help company ownership avoid total financial collapse. They might give a call to their colleagues in Honolulu and share this perspective.
Sun-Times Media Group (STMG) is outsourcing its inbound classified advertising sales to Buffalo-based Classified Plus. It didn’t say how much the move would save. Classified Plus handles calls for more than 200 newspapers in the U.S. The way things are going, it may soon be able to do that with a single employee.
David Esrati’s “How Newspapers can become relevant in a Web 2.0 world” reads like an extended blog comment, but has some sound advice for how newspapers can learn a few things from Google and other Web properties.
This 2 1/2 minute video has scored over 11 million views on YouTube, and if you watch it, you’ll understand why. It’s an incredible love story that could only be told in this medium. What a heartwarming story of love across the boundaries of time and species.
This entry was posted on Thursday, August 14th, 2008 at 10:14 am and is filed under Advertising, blogging, Business News, BusinessModel, Citizen Journalism, Classifieds, Future of Journalism, Journalism, Layoffs, NewMedia, Newspapers, OnlineMedia. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.