|By the Project for Excellence in Journalism and Rick Edmonds of The Poynter Institute
A year ago we reported that newspapers were still highly profitable, managing reasonable ad-revenue and earnings growth but beginning to feel pressure on fundamentals of their business model.
That was then. In 2005:
Certainly one of the most noted events of the year occurred in November, when several dissatisfied institutional investors in Knight Ridder demanded that the company be sold. Knight Ridder capitulated, agreeing “to explore strategic options.” By the year’s end, it had a number of preliminary bids.
Heading into 2006, the possible sale of Knight Ridder appeared to be shaping up as a lose-lose proposition for the industry. Analysts expected that a buyer (a private equity firm or other media company) would most likely make even deeper cuts than those Knight Ridder imposed in 2005. Knight Ridder reportedly explained how that might be done in talks with potential buyers. Conversely, if no buyer or group of buyers is willing to pay a premium for the stock, that outcome will be read as a ringing no-confidence vote in the industry.2
Profits and Revenues
Profit margins in the newspaper industry were one of the better economic figures of the year, at least on the surface. They were off just a bit from 2004. The 13 publicly traded companies fell an average of 1.5 percentage points to just below 20%. The average pre-tax operating margin for these companies was still higher than the high-flying pharmaceutical or oil industries. That figure, though, clearly did not impress investors, who now put little weight on profitability alone. Big profit margins on flat revenues, for example, suggest a stale industry to Wall Street.3
The investment community is now more focused on revenue growth (what they call the “top line”) and on the broader question of whether newspaper companies are nimble enough to invent new business models and find a way to grow in the Internet era.
When it came to revenues, Wall Street was far from excited. Total revenues from newspaper operations at those companies rose only an average of 2.2%.4
Newspapers generate their revenue from two different sources, circulation and advertising. In 2005 the ratio was roughly 20% circulation to 80% advertising. Two decades ago the ratio was closer to 30%-70%, but as circulation has declined the percentage it contributes to total newspaper revenue has also gone down.
Circulation revenue was down at most companies, 3.5% on average for public companies . At Tribune, the country’s second largest newspaper chain in revenues, for instance, it was off 7%.5
As for advertising, the newspaper business has historically followed the country’s general economic cycles, falling slightly in advance of a recession and rallying in the early stages of an upturn. During the last serious downturn in 2001 investors stayed calm as both revenues and earnings fell. In 2004 and 2005, however, there was nothing especially ailing in the economy, yet advertising growth went soft anyway. The Newspaper Advertising Association estimated overall ad revenue growth in the first three quarters of 2005 to be 3%.6 The fourth quarter was even worse.
An obvious culprit is the movement of ad business to online. It is not so much that advertisers are quitting newspapers in droves; they are not . Surveys consistently show, though, that companies are leaving their print and broadcast ad budgets flat and increasing online display and straight-to-the-consumer online marketing. Examples abound, from the auto companies’ design-your-own-car sites to Expedia and other book-it-yourself travel services (like Hertz, which went six months without advertising in the New York Times).
Newspapers are far from outright losers in the online game. Ads on their sites continued for a fourth straight year to grow at rates of 30% to 60%, faster than online advertising as a whole. But the online rates are much lower than print rates. What’s more, Google and Yahoo grew even faster, with the great majority of their revenues from advertising, and they have become the stock market’s darlings.
Another factor in the decline of ad revenue was downturns in some industries that purchase newspaper ads. Automobile sales and auto advertising had an off year in 2005 (they did well only with the summer “employee-price” promotion). According to the January 17, 2006 , report from Deutsche Bank, auto classified was down 5% over all and down as much as the “low teens” for some publicly traded companies.7
A rally in auto advertising had been one of the hopes of the newspaper industry for a better 2006. But that hope dimmed, and newspapers posted especially bad results in December 2005, the month Ford announced its plans to restructure and lay off 30,000 workers.
Completion of the Federated-May department store merger also hurt retail advertising in a number of large cities — two significant advertisers collapsed into one, and they shifted strategy to emphasize Internet. At Philadelphia Newspapers, for instance, publisher Joe Natoli said the merger would eliminate the Strawbridge’s nameplate, one of the papers’ largest advertisers.8
The movie business was down for a second consecutive year, especially affecting the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. And the Wal-Mart phenomenon keeps on rolling. The retail juggernaut rarely runs newspaper advertising, and other big-box retailers like Home Depot and Circuit City have shifted from display advertising to inserts.
Telecommunications advertising also contracts as a result of mergers like that of Sprint and Nextel. Telecommunications newspaper advertising declined 14% in the third quarter.9
Real estate advertising was the one category that appeared especially strong in 2005. And even if the boom in housing prices had crested, as many believed, that might or might not be a negative in 2006. Longer time for sales could translate to extended advertising schedules in some markets. Still, as the Newspaper Association of America has noted, Web alternatives are gradually making newspaper listings less central to selling existing homes.
Over all, both the volume of classified advertising and what newspapers can charge for it came under pressure in 2005. Craigslist, whose online classified listings are free except for job-recruitment ads in some big cities, represents killer competition in categories like general merchandise. In San Francisco, home base of Craigslist, the service is estimated to have cost the San Francisco Chronicle $50 million in lost classified revenue in 2004.10 A number of newspapers now offer free listings to private parties trying to sell small-ticket items, but broadly the industry is stuck trying to make the case that while their classified are more costly, they deliver greater value.
If the Craigslist headache isn’t enough, Google in November 2005 launched a new product in beta (trial) version, called Google Base. It allows users to post all kinds of content, including free classified advertising. It is too early to estimate its competitive impact, but that could prove enormous.
Employment advertising is another microcosm of the competitive dilemma in what traditionally has been the single highest-margin segment of the high-margin classifieds. Recruitment advertising was up for the year, but some of the huge losses of 2001 have never been recouped.
Online sites like Monster.com, which was set up for both job suppliers and job seekers, have taken a big bite out of newspapers’ share. The newspaper’ own electronic service, CareerBuilder, a joint venture of Gannett, Tribune and Knight-Ridder, has grown quickly in five years and is now the industry leader in volume (whether it is truly profitable is still murky). The fact remains, though, that Monster, which did not exist a decade ago, was recording 200 million job searches a month and approaching $1 billion in annual revenues worldwide in 2005.11 Yahoo/Hot Jobs, third in the field, is a formidable competitor, too.
Trying to get a fix on the size of the classified problem, the NAA commissioned a study by the McKinsey consulting firm in spring of 2005. The trade association got more than it bargained for. The study estimated that competitive pressure alone had cost the industry $2 billion in revenue between 1996 and 2004. Knight Ridder’s CEO, Tony Ridder, chairman of the image-conscious NAA at the time, dismissed McKinsey’s work as “a very shallow and superficial effort.”12
The episode seemed to capture the general sense of jitters. The industry wanted to know what the trouble was, but the leadership seemed put off when the findings were too negative .
It is probably fairest to say that the industry has hardly been complacent, but that the advertising problems really are enormous. The litany of trouble spots is so long that newspapers have been fairly adaptive just to keep advertising revenue headed up at all. Partly that has meant finding new categories over the last decade like pharmaceuticals or, more recently, branded online services, to replace fading lines of business.
Newspaper companies have also been aggressive with rate increases. Yet it is problematic how long that can be kept up if circulation losses continue and the alternative “readership” and “total audience” stories fail to impress the advertising community.
Heading into 2006, the problems on the revenue side of newspapers, in other words, are real and are not going way.
There was also bad news on the cost side of the ledger in 2005. Newsprint prices, so soft in 2003 and early 2004 that they may have masked deteriorating fundamentals, were up another 5% to 10% in 2005. More of the same is expected in 2006.13 Watch for a continuing wave of reductions in paper weight, newshole and page width to cushion the cost impact. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, plans to shrink the size of its broadsheet from 60 inches to 48 in 2007.14
Like most American businesses, newspapers also feel continuing cost pressure on health and pension benefits. In addition, public-company results will look a little worse in 2006 because of new accounting regulations requiring that stock options be expensed. Finally, staff cuts and buyouts save money over time, but will turn up as special expenses in 2005 and the first part of 2006.
One of the most critical business questions at this juncture is whether newspapers are losing their power to raise ad rates as circulation losses accelerate. In many ways the biggest strength of the industry in the expansionary 1970s and 1980s was its ability to raise advertising rates 5% or 10% a year, even without growing circulation, and with little market resistance. Competition first began to emerge in the 1990s from diverse quarters like alternative weeklies and publications like the Auto Traders, a group of free specialty publications that consisted of nothing but listings of cars for sale. Ad rates still rose, but by a little less.
Then Internet competitors — some of them very well capitalized like Google and Yahoo — came along and changed the landscape unmistakably by matching ad placements to topical searches.
Even amid the new competition, though, newspapers have had an advantage over other media. Their advertising rates have never been tightly tied to circulation numbers (unlike magazines, where publishers guarantee a rate base and refund advertisers money if they fail to meet it). Historically, many advertisers simply have wanted to be in the newspaper, diminished reach or not. It has continued to deliver the single largest audience (in most places all local television stations combined draw more people, but no single one does.) That is the short explanation of why big circulation losses have not translated directly into lower sales, profit margins, and earnings.
The circulation losses of 2005, though, may finally be great enough to curtail the papers’ bargaining power. If they lose their leverage in negotiating packages with advertisers, that might cause advertising revenues to begin to fall rather than merely flatten.15 As soon as that happened for a year or two, it would signal the erosion of newspapers’ hold on local-market advertising and cement the industry’s going-nowhere image on Wall Street .
The issue is central enough that several companies broke with the tradition of confidentiality surrounding advertising rates and got specific about price increases in December 2005 Media Week presentations to investors. The New York Times said it planned a 5% increase at the mother paper and an average of 3% at its New England and regional groups. USA Today planned a 6% increase, Tribune between 3% and 6%.16
Those companies offering revenue forecasts were guarded. Gannett, for instance, reported 3.4% total newspaper revenue growth in 2005. It forecast “low to mid-single-digit growth” in 2006. With the online contribution at Gannett up nearly 50% for 2005, traditional print advertising is weak.
In short, 2006 shapes up as a testing year.
New Business Models: Online, Youth and Niche
With traditional revenue streams slumping, newspapers are clearly in need of new business models. Executives know it, and a consensus strategy has emerged for what’s next. The industry wants to develop online, to build niche publications and some direct shopping, and several bigger companies intend to invest cash flow in fast-growing non-news businesses.
So the industry is not standing still, expecting some big rebound in its daily print editions to carry them. But questions linger. Will online revenue continue to grow enough to make up for declines on the print side as the sites mature? Is big strategic innovation really in the DNA of companies built around traditional departments like production or advertising to sustain the print franchise? Will companies swing too far in the new focus and neglect the news core of the venture?
Online has become a favorite child. As discussed in more detail in the News Investment section of this chapter, 2005 marked a sharp break with a general pattern of doing little more than posting print content online. There were investments both in upgrading the timeliness of reports and in bells and whistles like video, audio, citizen journalism and blogs. Some local sites are more advanced than others, but the practice of simply rehashing the morning paper, so-called “shovelware,” is increasingly out of favor.
The Web sites of national newspapers merit some special mention. At the New York Times and USA Today, print and online news staffs began to be consolidated, a process expected to extend through 2006 and beyond. The Washington Post’s staffs remained separate, but a 24-hour news desk was added, linking the two. The Wall Street Journal’s site, which requires a paid subscription, has 764,000 users, and the New York Times took a step in that direction by putting columnists and some other content behind a wall called “Times Select.” By the year’s end, “Times Select” had 336,000 subscribers, about 45% paid, at $50 a year; the rest were subscribers to the print edition who had registered to get the service free.17
Those developments have not gone unnoticed. Over all, online advertising revenues at the public companies grew 30% to 60% again in 2005.18
The emphasis on the Web, at long last, makes obvious sense. As the data on audience make clear, the future of news in written form is increasingly online. And advertisers have proved willing to move there. The problem is whether and how quickly that can be made profitable — through advertising or subscriptions — at a level comparable to print.
Assuming that ad rates for online and print ads stay roughly where they are, by our calculations, if online operations sustain 33% growth a year it will still be 2017 or 2018 before they have bulked up to the size of the slower-growing newspaper divisions. (That assumes newspaper ad revenues grow at an annual rate of 3% during the period. If newspaper ad revenues begin to decline, the tipping point will come sooner, but the whole operation will be smaller).19
Online Revenue vs. Newspaper Revenue
Source: Rick Edmonds,”An Online Rescue for Newspapers?”, January 27, 2005, Poynter Institute
Sustaining growth, though, is not a slam dunk. The biggest and best-developed sites, like WashingtonPost.com and USAToday.com, grow more in dollars, but at a lower rate than the industry overall. With maturity come new issues like “inventory” — the available space for displaying ads.
There is also the challenge of reaping revenues online that come anywhere near those in print. Currently, online advertising revenue typically amounts to roughly 5% of total advertising revenue. Though the units do not allow for a strict apples-to-apples comparison, analysts estimate that when an advertiser switches part of a schedule from print to online, the Web ad generates only 20 to 33 cents or so for each dollar lost in print revenue.
Paul Ginocchio of Deutsche Bank Securities paints an even bleaker assessment: A newspaper print reader is worth an average of $360 a year (circulation revenue included); an online reader is worth closer to $20 to $25 because of lower rates and shorter visits.20
The upside is that Web distribution involves vast savings. As readers move from print to online reading, there are small savings now and bigger ones later from not having to print and deliver as many paper copies. If the companies have modeled the cost and profit side, that half of the game plan is not openly discussed. Yet even if distribution accounts for half of the cost of print, the lost revenue of a reader switching to online overwhelms, for now, what might be saved in distribution.
This was how the Washington Post’s Donald Graham summed up the online questions in that presentation to analysts and investors in December : “Will WashingtonPost.com grow in traffic? You bet. Will it grow in revenue? Chances are. How much can it grow in profits? That might be one of the central questions we face.”21
A second leg of the consensus strategy is heavy attention to youth, niche and ethnic publications. The strategy is hardly new, but after three or four years the publications continue to flourish. They have economic appeal because they are comparatively inexpensive to produce, and a good share of the ads are sold by the newspapers’ existing ad staffs.
Ethnic publications remain a hot category, but newspapers have met a strong push back from established grass-roots competitors. Tribune’s Hoy, for instance, once considered the leading edge among Spanish-language dailies, turned out to be a house of cards built on padded circulation in New York . Tribune quietly shifted from paid to free distribution of Hoy’s Chicago edition. In Los Angeles , where Tribune was up against the longstanding family-owned La Opinion, it made a similar switch.
The Spanish-language publications seem to succeed where the largest concentrations of Hispanics live — San Antonio , Dallas or Miami — but in other cities are harder to sustain. The San Jose Mercury News, for example, closed its Spanish newspapers and sold its Vietnamese paper because they were not making enough profit.22
Youth publications — dailies in the biggest cities, weeklies elsewhere — also continue to proliferate, as do other kinds of niche publications. Gannett, for instance, now has more than 800 niche and other weekly publications, and says most have become quickly profitable.23
Many niche publications, with their focus on home design, health, travel and fashion, lopsidedly cater to the interests of the well-to-do. Some might view that as a distraction from the newspaper’s role of covering the whole community; others argue that it helps pay the bills, same as run-of-the-paper advertising has done traditionally.
There is no dispute that online and niche together have been a financial godsend. Print edition revenue growth, alone, was typically just 1% in 2005. But a multi-platform growth total was at least a bit brighter at a little more than 2%. Even the St. Petersburg Times, often held up as a model of modest profit margins and investments in the news core, expected 45% of its ad revenue growth in 2005 to come from online and a new youth-targeted weekly.24
The bigger companies added a third leg to their growth strategies in 2005 with a wave of acquisitions. A couple — “Marketwatch” for Dow Jones and Slate for the Washington Post — mostly bulked up online news and commentary. More typically, the new family of ventures are Internet-based and information-driven but not news, with names few journalists would recognize — About.Com, Shopzilla and Topix.net . (See sidebar for discussion of each.)
Broadly they move the newspaper companies into a new type of business. The services typically offer shoppers product information, comparative prices and a capability to order directly. Clark Gilbert, a Harvard Business School professor and longtime student of innovation and lack of innovation by newspapers, explained the strategy in a Wall Street Journal column in November: First, it moves the companies into a new and explosively growing market space, reaching shoppers who may or may not care for news. Second, it adds some in-house expertise in online innovation.25
Two of the first newspaper companies to pair a growth business with profitable but slow-growth newspaper and local TV holdings have had considerable success. The Washington Post’s Kaplan education division now generates more revenue than the newspaper, though not as much profit. E.W. Scripps has had huge success with the Food Network and Home and Garden Television. It has three other channels under development, and some on Wall Street now view Scripps as a cable content company that also owns some newspapers and television stations.
It is still early, though, to fully judge the synergies and innovative spark the acquisitions are supposed to provide.
If all breaks well, the businesses will be fast-growing moneymakers. In the December 2005 meetings, companies were already wrapping revenue into their online divisions, the better to bolster a growth story.
Profits, Stock Performance, and Deploying Cash
Newspaper executives may be excited by the new business acquisitions, but Wall Street in 2005 remained unconvinced that they were enough. Or at least the industry had not yet made a persuasive case.
Hence its yearlong tumble, with most stocks down at least 15% and some 30% or more. And that was in a year when the S & P index was up 5%.
Those companies with a track record of re-deploying cash into big growth plays — like Scripps and the Washington Post — are relative favorites. (See chart for company-by-company performance). Nor have investors responded enthusiastically to cost-control initiatives like those at Tribune, the New York Times Company, and Knight Ridder. The market appeared to be looking for more in 2005 than frugality. Apparently it wanted vision, and some persuasive reason to believe the companies knew the strategy would work.
Newspaper Company Stock Values
The publicly traded companies began 2005 with market capitalization (shares times stock price) of roughly $85 billion. They ended the year at roughly $15 billion less. What can help? Stabilizing circulation or an uptick in ad revenues would. Transformation — full integration of the multiple platforms and new businesses — would be even better. Realistically, though, that will play out over a period of years, not just in 2006.
The companies do have financial moves available to appease shareholders in the meantime. A number have been buying back large quantities of their own stock, a device that improves earnings per share by reducing the number of shares traded.
Douglas Arthur of Morgan Stanley and other analysts have suggested that the companies could pay much higher dividends, returning a bigger chunk of cash flow to investors in that way. Dividends went out of fashion in the go-go 90s, but have been coming back lately. That could make newspapers attractive to income-oriented investors like the coming wave of baby-boomer retirees. While several newspaper companies have increased their small dividends modestly, none have yet plunged in that direction.26
Some companies come close to executing the difficult trick of striking a consistent balance among shareholder-friendly financial response to changing times, core competency and growth strategy. Others are perceived as flailing — cost-cutting Tribune and Knight Ridder are the obvious examples. That is how, after four years in which newspaper stocks outperformed the market, we came to a pass in 2005 where one of those companies lost more than a third of its value in 18 months and the other was being floated as an acquisition target.
Newspapers will continue a transition to new business models and try to stabilize basics of readership and advertising in 2006. Battered, the industry still has the advantages of generating lots of cash and holding leading local-market franchises both in print and online. The situation amounts, as one senior executive put it, to a race against time. Can newspapers keep pace with changing media consumption patterns and some formidable competitors? Or will disinvestment and cost-cutting undermine their credibility with Wall Street and the public even as they move now to innovate?
1. Lauren Rich Fine, “Q4 Preview,” Merrill Lynch, January 17, 2006.
3. Rick Edmonds, “Trouble on the Top Line,” Poynter Online, June 27, 2005. Available online at: http://www.poynter.org/content/content_view.asp?id=84473.
5. Paul Ginocchio, Deutsche Bank Securities, to co-author Edmonds January 23, 2006. Merrill Lynch estimates circulation revenues were down 2.5%.
6. Newspaper Association of America , “Print And Online Newspaper Advertising Up 2.4% In Q3; Up 2.9% In First Nine Months of 2005,” November 22, 2005 . Available online at: http://www.naa.org/utilartpage.cfm?TID=NR&AID=7317.
7. Paul Ginocchio, “Auto: Turning the Corner or Are the Wheels Coming Off,” Deutsche Bank Securities, January 17, 2006.
8. Dan Sewell, “Federated Merger Another Blow to Papers,” Associated Press, September 22, 2005.
9. Jim Conaghan, “Outlook 2006,” Presstime,” January 2006. Available online at: http://www.naa.org/Presstime/PTArtPage.cfm?AID=7378.
10. Peter Zollman, “Competing With Craig,” Classified Intelligence, December 2004.
11. Monster 2004 annual report and presentation at CSFB Media Week Conference December 2005.
12. Jon Fine, “Net to Newspapers: Drop Dead,” BusinessWeek online, July 4, 2005.
13. CSFB Media Week presentations, December 2005.
15. Rick Edmonds, “The Next Bad Thing? More Circulation Woes?” Poynter Online, November 3, 2005. Online at: http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/05_27/b3941024.htm
16. Op. Cit., CSFB Media Week presentations.
19. Rick Edmonds, “An Online Rescue for Newspapers?” Poynter Online, January 27, 2005. The growth rate in online operations of 33% is an average. Larger public companies do better, smaller papers do less well.
20. David Washburn, “A Lifeline Online,” San Diego Union-Tribune, November 27, 2005.
21. Credit Suisse First Boston. Remarks by Donald E. Graham at the Global Media Week Conference, December 6, 2005. Available online at: http://library.corporate-ir.net/library/62/624/62487/items/176243/CSFB_12.6.05.pdf
22. Michael Stoll, “Mercury News will shed 2 ethnic papers,” Grade the News, October 21, 2005 . Available online at: http://www.gradethenews.org/2005/nmclosure.htm
23. Mid-Year Media Review presentation. Available online at: http://www.gannett.com/go/press/mymr05/overview.htm
24. St. Petersburg Times publisher Marty Petty to co-author Edmonds.
25. Clark Gilbert and Scott D. Anthony, “Newspapers in an Electronic Age,” the Wall Street Journal, November 8, 2005.
26. Arthur is quoted in “Read All About It,” Barron’s Online (date and text not available).