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October 07 2010

17:00

Scripps fellows buy time for a local online strategy

When the E.W. Scripps Company announced its new “Scripps Fellows” program, cheers of “huzzah for jobs!” could probably be heard going up from around the news industry, not to mention on our Twitter feed. Granted, the 40 or so new media fellowships are 6-12 month stints, not the full-time gigs journalists crave, but it’s frontline work at newspapers around the country that have mostly been shrinking their staffs.

Maybe that cheer should have been “huzzah for strategy!” It’s not as catchy, but it’s on point: The fellows program, aside from offering opportunities for new and established journalists, is Scripps’ way of helping their papers shore up staff and create time to devise a localized web/print strategy for content and advertising.

“This frees up time for site managers and people like myself to focus on strategy,” Mizell Stewart, editor of the Evansville Courier & Press, told me. Stewart is a member of the task force overseeing the fellows program.

Instead of creating a cross-company strategy for integrating web and print or raising online revenue, Scripps has tasked each paper with finding out what works best in their community. With fellows in areas like multimedia reporting, web design/development, and user experience analysis, managers will be able to tasked with exploring things like CMS options, delivery of mobile products, and how to create stronger local content.

“The evolution of digital in a lot of local newspapers has started in the newsroom, broke off to a separate operation, and now we’re at the point where it is integrated into the newsroom again,” Stewart said.

Scripps papers are like countless others that find themselves spinning plates: Turning out a daily paper, producing a website, devising online advertising rates, attracting new readers, experimenting with social media, the list (or plates) go on.

In this case each Scripps paper will hire and deploy the fellows to suit their needs, so while the Naples Daily News may get someone handy shooting and editing video, The Commercial Appeal in Memphis may get an online producer. Stewart said a number of fellows with programming or UX experience will work with the interactive newsgroup in Knoxville that provides support to their websites.

Just how aggressively are they going after these digital natives? They’re directing applicants to their Facebook page to get more information and apply.

“Oftentimes people who are just beginning their careers but coming out of those education institutions that do training in digital media, sometimes their skill sets are stronger than those who have been on our staff a long time,” he said.

August 05 2010

14:00

The Newsonomics of the fading 80/20 rule

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

Jim Moroney thinks he may be on to a new formula. It’s not as great — not nearly as profitable — as that old newspaper formula, but it’s one that may sustain his company into the future.

“The Dallas Morning News now gets 38 percent of its revenue from circulation, 54 percent from advertising, and 8 percent from contract printing plus,” the Morning News’ publisher tells me.

Those numbers are a far cry from the way it used to be for newspaper companies. They long used one of the many 80/20 rules out there: 80 percent of their revenue came from advertising, and 20% came from circulation.

Now, as ad revenue has been on a precipitous decline — down from almost $50 billion in 2000 to $24 billion in 2009, and still sliding a bit more — that old formula is out the window.

While the digital news world seems consumed with conversations about paywalls and memberships, it is old-fashioned print circulation revenue that is the gainer in the post-80/20 formulas. Sure, advertising’s ski slope decline has greatly altered the 80/20. So has, though, the significant up-pricing of both subscriptions and single copies over the past three years.

At the Morning News, Moroney — aided by research from consumer products company The Modellers — took monthly subscriptions from $18 to $30, in one fell swoop. Many other publishers have upped prices, though most have done it more gradually. Pick up a slim copy anywhere in your travels, and you see it now costs 75 cents or a buck; it used to be the “25-cent or 35-cent?” discussion that consumed executive committees.

The impact of the pricing moves is still uncertain. Short-term, they seemed to work. Though circulation continued to decline, circulation revenue was mildly up. The central notion: Get those with the newspaper habit to pay more of the freight, figuring that few would drop the newspaper because it cost two Grande Mochas more.

As we look at last quarter’s financial reports, we have to wonder how the up-pricing of circulation will work. As many companies showed a decline in circulation revenue in the second quarter as showed an increase.

A few of the numbers:

  • McClatchy: down 2.5%
  • Lee: down 4.4%
  • Gatehouse: down 2.5%

Moroney’s own company, A.H. Belo, of which he is an executive vice-president, reported a 6.6-percent increase. Additionally, The New York Times Company reported a 3.2-percent increase and Scripps a 4.5-percent increase (from 1st quarter data; 2nd not out until Aug. 9). Significantly, I think, each of those companies may have done a better job of minimizing newsroom cuts and reinvesting — at least a little — in that now higher-priced product.

While the jury is out on the stickiness of price increases, it’s clear the old 80/20 rule is gone.

Broadly, in research I conduct annually for Outsell, we track the global moves in ad, circulation and digital revenue. In 2009, circulation revenue was up more than a point over 2008 to 41 percent. Significantly, Japanese publishers continue to get a majority of their revenue from circulation, while much of Europe and UK see their percentages in 35-45 percent range.

ln the U.S., let’s just pull some data from the second-quarter reports. They show:

  • New York Times: Circ: 40%, Ads: 53%, Other: 7%
  • Scripps: Circ: 28%; Ads: 67%; Other: 5%
  • Gatehouse: Circ: 27% , Ads: 71%, Other 2%
  • Lee: Circ: 24%, Ads: 70%, Other: 6%
  • McClatchy: Circ: 20%; Ads: 76%, Other: 4%

Several factors will continue to push and pull the new ad/circ breakdown.

For one thing, we’re moving into an era of “reader revenue,” one that will roll up print subscriptions, single print copies, digital pay per view, digital subscriptions, all-access (across platform) subscriptions, memberships and more. For a next generation of reader revenue, tablet access is the big prize in the sights of publishers; witness, for instance, the likelihood of a News Corp. “iPad division.” Further, advertising will continue morph greatly, as digital marketing replaces some of that spend, enlarging and changing definitions.

Finally, don’t forget “other.” For A.H. Belo, it’s 8 percent now, but growing at at 35-percent clip. As news companies find “other” ways to make “other” revenue, we’ll see new formulas begin to make sense.

March 25 2010

13:39

NAA chief on Q4: “Velocity of ad decline is moderating”

The Newspaper Association of America has quietly updated the “trends and numbers” section of its site with fourth-quarter 2009 revenue, showing a 14th consecutive quarter of overall revenue loss and only a few indications of slowdown or reversal in the downtrend.

Counting online revenue, the industry’s total revenue came in 23.73 percent below Q4 of 2008. In the first three quarters of 2009, the losses were 28.28 percent, 29.00 percent and 27.94 percent. While the lower loss rate in the Q4 results could be considered an improvement, the only category with a significant improvement was online advertising, which lost just 1.00 percent in Q4, compared to drops of 13.40 percent, 15.90 percent and 16.92 percent in the first three quarters. (For the full year, total revenue came in at $27.564 billion, which is a mere $64 million over my prediction made back on September 22.)

Putting the best possible spin on the situation, NAA President and CEO John F. Sturm said in a statement: “The velocity of the advertising decline for print classifieds continued to moderate, and adverse trends for national advertising and newspaper Web sites lessened considerably as last year came to a close.” He added that he had been hearing “buzz” that this “ad trend improvement” was continuing in the first quarter of 2010.

Indications from a few of the firms for the first quarter of 2010 do point to a smaller loss, perhaps in the low teens. Since the downtrend began in 2006, the industry has lost more than 44 percent percent of its revenue, including nearly 48 percent of print revenue.

In most categories, Q4 provided no particular relief from the downtrend. Some details:

Online revenue, as noted, was down just 1.00 percent, perhaps an indication of better days ahead. Part of the problem for online has been that for many, if not most publishers, a good fraction of online revenue is directly tied to printed advertising, with the online component sold as an “upsell” or added value proposition. This means online volume drops right along with print, even if there’s growth in ads sold on an online-only basis. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, at E.W. Scripps, this linkage of online and print covers about half of all online advertising, and I’m finding similar levels at other firms.

Retail revenue (the largest category) was down 24.33 percent, continuing precisely the track it was on for the first three quarters (which were off 23.68 percent, 24.92 percent and 23.98 percent, consecutively). And keep in mind that while retail sales have not rebounded much, we’ve had GDP growth since mid-2009. Every retail category measured by NAA showed a decline, which has been the case all year. Not surprisingly, the worst drop was in the building materials category, which fell 36.58 percent, a tad better than losses in the 50 percent ballpark for the first three quarters.

Classified revenue was down 31.72 percent, falling less than the first three quarters (42.34 percent, 40.42 percent and 37.90 percent), but that may be because there’s just not much left to lose. In Q4, total classified revenue was $1.757 billion, compared with $5.243 billion in Q4 of 2005, the best quarter ever in classified volume. In other words, in four years, more than 66 percent of classified revenue has evaporated.

As in retail, every classified category (automotive, real estate, recruitment and other) was down in every quarter of 2009. The slight reduction in the rate of decline can be attributed to slowdowns in the loss rates in automotive (down just 37.0 percent in Q4 versus losses in the low 40s during the first three quarters), and “other,” which was off just 8.0 percent (versus 16.1 percent, 11.7 percent and 8.8 percent earlier in the year), but that “improvement” is probably due to the growth in foreclosure notices, which are generally counted in this category.

National revenue fell 19.80 percent, compared with losses of 25.87 percent, 29.61 percent and 29.84 percent in the first three quarters. National saw small upticks in automotive (based on spending by manufacturers to support the cash for clunkers incentives), food, household furniture and furnishings (which almost doubled), and medical and toiletries. While most categories were down, at least there is evidence of a few actual trend reversals in spending by national brands.

January 18 2010

17:51

Singleton’s next chapter: Can he steer MediaNews to a digital future?

[Our regular contributor Martin Langeveld spent 13 years as a publisher in MediaNews Group. That gives him an inside perspective on the company's bankruptcy filing, which he shares with us here. —Ed.]

In August 2006, as part of a deal that netted MediaNews Group the Contra Costa Times, San Jose Mercury News, and the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Hearst Corporation agreed to make a $300 million equity investment in MediaNews. At that point, the peak of MediaNews’ company’s expansion and with revenue and cash flow at an all-time high, the holdings of the principal stockholders — the Singleton and Scudder families — net of debt, were arguably worth more than $500 million each.

But last Friday, whatever was left of that equity, as well as Hearst’s stake (not finalized until a year later), evaporated as part of an announced plan to file a “prepackaged” Chapter 11 bankruptcy. For Hearst, it’s a hefty writeoff of a bad investment. For the Scudders, it’s a bitter payoff after nearly 25 years of active participation in MediaNews management. For MediaNews CEO William Dean Singleton and his financial wizard, company president Joseph (Jody) L. Lodovic IV, it’s a fresh start (which includes a 20 percent equity stake for the duo, and retained control of the company).

Could readers of the company’s papers now see new investment in its newsgathering capabilities, long hammered by budget reductions? For MediaNews employees, could this be an opportunity to participate in the transformation of the company into a truly digital enterprise? Both answers depend on what kind of vision is shared by Singleton, Lodovic, and the former bondholders who are now their equity partners.

MediaNews’ story

In 1983, Singleton, then a brash 32-year-old newspaperman who already had bought and sold several newspapers, enlisted the help of his friend Richard B. Scudder to buy  the Gloucester County Times in New Jersey. Scudder, former publisher of the Newark Evening News (which his family owned for three generation before selling it in 1972), was founder and president of the Garden State Paper Co., the first commercial-scale producer of recycled newsprint.

Singleton and Scudder went on to create MediaNews Group in March 1985, and steered the company through a long series of deals that eventually built it into the sixth-largest newspaper group (by circulation) in the country — today it owns 54 daily newspapers with a total weekday circulation of about 2.3 million, plus a slew of weeklies and niche products. It also has a television station in Anchorage and a group of radio stations in Texas.

From the outset, Singleton and Scudder agreed to manage MediaNews for growth, and never to pay dividends. Neither of the partners ever personally owned any stock — they put it in trusts for Scudder’s children and grandchildren and for Singleton’s future children. Singleton was only 33, unmarried and childless at the time, but Scudder was 72, so the trust strategy would avoid inheritance taxes in the event of his death.

The company never went public, but because a small portion of its debt was publicly held, it was required for years to file disclosures with the SEC, providing a detailed window into the complex financial structure that enabled its growth. (That window closed in 2008 when the company reached an agreement with bondholders to avoid the filings.)

The financial wizard behind the company’s financial maneuvers was Jody Lodovic, who became chief financial officer in the early 1990s and rose to become president. Together, Singleton and Lodovic created partnerships with Gannett in Texas and New Mexico and with Gannett and Stephens Media in California to which each company contributed its newspapers, with MediaNews assuming the management. They pioneered the concept of “clusters” of papers that could realize economies of scale. They deftly exploited joint operating agreements in Detroit, Charleston, W.V., York, Penn., Salt Lake City and ultimately in Denver at the conclusion of a long battle between MediaNews’ flagship paper, the Denver Post, and the Rocky Mountain News. At times, when cash was tight or they got offers they couldn’t refuse, they sold papers, including the original New Jersey cluster dear to Dick Scudder’s heart.

For Singleton, the elimination of most his company’s debt is a long-delayed goal. As early as 1996, at a retreat for the group’s management and publishers, he outlined strategies including a few more years of acquisitions followed by a push to reduce debt. But somehow, acquisition opportunities kept coming along, and debt reduction was put off. Singleton began to feel that at some point, there would be only two or three newspaper companies left standing, and he wanted MediaNews to be one. To be in the running, the company had to keep growing. Ultimately, revenue tanked not long after the final big deals with McClatchy and Hearst, and MediaNews found itself in workout last April. Given the complexity of its financial structure, it’s not surprising that it took eight months to package the bankruptcy.

For Singleton, it’s not the first disappointing turn, but certainly the biggest. In 1975, pre-MediaNews and at the age of 24, Singleton was involved in an attempt to revive the Fort Worth Press, which had been closed by E. W. Scripps after losing money for two decades. The venture ended in failure after three months. MediaNews bought, but couldn’t make a go of the Dallas Times-Herald, which was closed a few years after Singleton sold it. Later, MediaNews bought the Houston Post but couldn’t make it profitable and sold the assets to Hearst, which owned the dominant Houston Chronicle. Hearst paid $120 million and immediately closed the Post. (The laid-off staffers, calling themselves the Toasted Posties, set up an early social networking site of sorts to stay in touch and swap gossip about Singleton; it was succeeded by a now-dormant blog, and later by a Facebook page.)

Known as a cost-cutter

Though he continues to have a reputation for ruthlessly cutting costs when necessary, Singleton takes a genuine pride and interest in his newsroom staffs. When visiting newspapers, before heading out for dinner with the publisher, he makes of point of visiting the newsroom to see what’s going on. He keeps an eye on editors, reporters and photographers with promise and has promoted some to the Denver Post. He has a mail subscription to every one of his dailies, and when he’s traveling, his sister and personal secretary Pat Robinson sends some of them to his destination in Fedex boxes so he can keep up. Editors are not surprised to get a call from Singleton asking about a local story, or exhorting them to run more local news on the front page. He lets each local paper formulate its own editorial views and endorsements. Before the going got rough, Singleton and Scudder convened annual gatherings of MediaNews publishers to talk strategy; they enjoyed these confabs far better than meetings of publishers.

And as Singleton told the Wall Street Journal in an interview relating to the current bankruptcy process, he continues to press his vision for consolidation of the newspaper industry, telling the Journal he wanted to be the “aggressor” in that effort.  The group’s employees fear that by consolidation, Singleton means more outsourcing or more centralization of operations regionally and nationally. There’s been a lot of that already, and there could be more, but Singleton and Lodovic will now be free to expand their partnerships, to seek mergers with other groups, or to rationalize the market through exchanges of newspaper properties. “Look at the map,” Singleton told the Journal in response to the question of where such consolidations might occur.

Singleton has lived with multiple sclerosis for 24 years; the disease has now robbed him of the use of his legs. In a long and particularly revealing interview last year with the Colorado Statesman, he discussed its effects:

I cheated it for many, many years. The last three years, I haven’t cheated it so well, and it has become more aggressive. I’ve lost the use of my legs and partial use of my arms and fingers. I feel fine most of the time. I’ve never missed work because of it. But clearly the current prognosis isn’t particularly good. The good news about Multiple Sclerosis is, it doesn’t kill you. But it does disable you. Not being able to walk or button your shirts or tie your tie — it’s troubling. But I’d rather be disabled and alive than fully able and headed to the other side. So I count my blessings for all the things it hasn’t taken. But it certainly has taken a lot. I look worse than I feel. I feel pretty good.

I’m still very energetic and do what I want to do. I travel if I want to travel, and get around to the newspapers and go anywhere I want to go. I enjoy life a lot, but I just enjoy it differently without some of the physical things I once had. It’s comical when I go on the road. I can’t button a button because my fingers don’t work. I can’t type anymore. I can’t use a computer because my fingers don’t work. If I go to hotels where I stay regularly, I’ve always got a concierge who’ll come up and button my shirts and help me tie my tie. If I stay in a strange hotel, I ask one of the housekeepers if she’ll button my shirts. She almost wants to call the police or something. You get all kinds of weird looks when you ask a housekeeper, “Would you come here and button my buttons for me?”

And I love it. In some places you get somebody who can’t speak English, so you have to explain how to button a shirt. And some places you get somebody who does, and they first think you’re joking. And then they understand your nod and they start laughing and everything. One of the fun things I have in life when I travel is the look on somebody’s face when I ask them to button my shirt. So you make the best of it.

Clearly, the MS puts some urgency in Singleton’s quest for a legacy. The elimination of most of his debt gives him an opportunity to rebuild newspaper operations that have been hammered for years by revenue declines and the company’s inability to invest adequately in its future (many of the papers are still operating on content management systems installed as Y2K solutions).  Whether he, or Lodovic, will have the vision to turn the company into a truly digital enterprise is an open question. Singleton has an understanding of the web (he helped lead the formation of the Yahoo Newspaper Consortium), but he’s not an active computer user. He has often expressed faith in the future of print, and has strongly espoused charging for content in order to protect the print side of the business: “I think print’s going to be important for a long time…Print is still the meat. Online’s the salt and pepper.”

With that attitude it seems unlikely that Singleton and Lodovic come to share the digital vision of another CEO leading his company out of bankruptcy, Journal Register’s John Paton, who told Jeff Jarvis recently (speaking of his previous company, Spanish-language publisher impreMedia):

The first thing we did was to decide that in our company, a print company, when it came to products we would be digital and brands first and print last. It was our radical way of focusing everyone on the future. By recognizing our competitors and our future were digital everything we built and did had to follow that decision.

Paton is free to pursue that vision at Journal Register, which is also newly unencumbered by debt. The readers and employees of MediaNews could benefit from a similarly unequivocal determination at the top to radically reinvent the business in a truly digital direction.

Disclosure: I worked for MediaNews Group as a publisher for 13 years from 1995 to 2008 at its cluster of four dailies in western New England. In a previous post, I outlined in more detail my suggestions for a more digitally-oriented MediaNews Group.

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