12 May 2012

Newspapers Are Not Dying, They Are Being Murdered by Management

Because instead of reinvesting in their business, they are spending their money on dividends and stock buybacks:
The Washington Post Company‘s dismal quarterly earnings release last week was received with something of a shrug—more of the same. But the report is worse than the reaction suggests and raises fundamental questions about the Post’s strategy, not just for the newspaper, but for the whole company.

If you hadn’t heard, the Washington Post Company is basically a for-profit college/SAT-prep firm that sidelines as a cable-TV provider and newspaper publisher. The august Washington Post (I’ll italicize Post here when referring to the newspaper and won’t when referring to its parent) contributed just 15 percent to its namesake company’s revenue in the first quarter but was a $23 million drag on the bottom line.

Kaplan, the Post’s education division, is the company’s cash cow, and a few years ago looked like the newspaper’s savior. But its revenue has fallen sharply over the last year and a half since for-profit schools, very much including Kaplan’s, came under pressure for predatory practices. Its sales tumbled 14 percent from 2010 to 2011 and dropped another 11 percent in the first quarter.

Its deteriorating prospects spells more trouble for the Post’s newspaper division, whose very bad first quarter included not only that $23 million loss but also a 7 percent decline in revenue. Crucially, its digital ad revenue—the paper’s main hope for the future—went into reverse and hit negative 8 percent. It’s just the latest in a long line of bad results.

The Post’s newspaper division (which includes Slate) has posted losses in thirteen of the last fifteen quarters, a trail of red ink that has led to cumulative losses of $412 million over the period. Its revenue has declined in twenty of the last twenty-two quarters and last year it brought in fully one-third less—$314 million—than it did at its peak in 2006. Layoffs have reduced the Post’s newsroom to a little more than half its peak size.

Despite this, the company continues to fork over hundreds of millions of dollars to shareholders in the form of dividends and share repurchases. The Post is disgorging the cash, as JW Mason calls it, to investors and depriving its businesses of resources.


This is financialization at work. Instead of investing in its business operations, the Post is investing in its stock, which is a very different thing. The only way this bet pans out is if the Post’s shares rebound significantly in coming years. Would you put money on that? I sure wouldn’t (moreover, the company effectively levered up to buy them. The Post rolled over $395 million in debt in early 2009 to mature in 2019—at a 1.75 percent premium to its old bonds).

Where would the Post be if its parent company had invested even one-quarter of that nearly one billion dollars in its newspaper, or in some other profit-making, preferably non-predatory venture? That’s unknowable, of course, but it’s worth thinking about when you ponder why newspapers haven’t better adapted to the digital age.
The facts are stark, though I think that part of the the author's thesis, that the WaPo should go behind a paywall, is fundamentally wrong.

People have not payed for news in newspapers since the beginning of the modern mass market newspaper, they have paid for ink on paper, and the content has been paid for by advertising.

The problem is not the internet, it's Craigslist. The classifieds have always been the most profitable source of ad revenue for papers, particularly in local markets.

Unfortunately, as opposed to finding a way to fight this, or another potential source of revenue, the news papers go for Wall Street rules, which means asset stripping rather than investment.


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