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July 18 2011

16:00

Alden Global Capital drops a shoe: Is the Journal Register acquisition prelude to more consolidation?

On Thursday, Journal Register Company announced that it had been acquired by Alden Global Capital, a secretive hedge fund that specializes in “distressed opportunities,” such as companies emerging from bankruptcy — including newspaper groups. The acquisition may foreshadow additional moves by Alden, which is interested in two strategies to add value to its investments: (a) it wants its newspaper holdings to aggressively develop digital capabilities and revenues, and (b) it wants to see consolidation (mergers) among newspaper groups.

In its capacity as a distressed-opportunity specialist, as I detailed here in January, Alden acquired stakes not only in JRC, but also in MediaNews Group, Philadelphia Media Network, Tribune, Freedom Communications, and the Canadian newspaper group Postmedia Network . Among publishers that avoided bankruptcy filings, it has stakes in A.H. Belo, Gannett, McClatchy, Media General and Journal Communications. (I detailed those investments in this post in March.) In addition to its newspaper holdings, Alden has other media investments, including in Emmis Communications and Sinclair Broadcast Group. Only the investments in public companies are detailed in SEC filings — they add up to about $210 million in media holdings. Together with the non-public investments in JRC, MediaNews, Freedom, Postmedia, and Philadelphia, Alden may have as much as $750 million of its total assets of $3 billion invested in newspaper and broadcast media properties.

At the time of that January post, Alden had just asserted itself at MediaNews Group by shaking up the executive suite and naming three new directors to the seven-member board. (Disclosure: I spent 13 years as a publisher at a MediaNews Group newspaper.) That move was important because it enabled Alden to use MediaNews as a platform from which to drive consolidation in the still-fractured U.S. newspaper industry. (The largest player, Gannett, owns only about 13 percent of the industry in terms of daily circulation.) Under SEC rules, by taking a position on the board, Alden was no longer allowed to speculate in MediaNews stock; hence, their assumption of board seats signalled an intent to use their MediaNews holdings strategically rather than speculatively. Until the JRC acquisition, Alden had not done the same at any of the other firms in which it had invested.

The first strategic move MediaNews made after the January shakeup was to make a bid for Freedom Communications, publisher of the Orange County Register and other papers and owner of broadcast properties, which put itself up for sale in March. Alden is believed to own about 40 percent of Freedom, a stake similar to its MediaNews holdings, but by not taking board seats, it had remained on the speculative side of the fence at Freedom, and therefore could not influence Freedom’s choice of an acquisition partner. But clearly, the ideal marriage from Alden’s point of view would be between Freedom and MediaNews.

Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that talks between MediaNews and Freedom had broken down, with a Freedom valuation of about $700 million at issue. Other suitors, including Tribune (in which Alden has a stake), may be in the picture, but with its relatively debt-free post-bankruptcy structure, and its heavy presence in the California newspaper market, MediaNews was in the strongest position in the bidding for Freedom. As Denver-based Westword (which keeps a close watch on MediaNews) said about the talks breakdown, “expect MediaNews Group and Freedom to sit down again in the coming months despite the current state of negotiation interruptus.”

Meanwhile, the Alden takeover of JRC gives it a second operating platform for its consolidation goals. Its JRC investment is now strategic rather than speculative as well; it can call the shots. Clearly, it likes JRC CEO John Paton, one of the prime exponents of a “digital first” strategy. Paton has also had a relationship with Alden’s Canadian interest, Postmedia, including a spot on its board and a role in recruiting its CEO, Paul Godfrey.

Since Paton took over JRC as it emerged from bankruptcy in 2009, he has built a reputation as a visionary by replacing old proprietary systems with open source software and cloud-based services. In 2010, the company said it earned $41 million in cash flow and increased digital revenues about 70 percent.

JRC, with Alden backing, could now become an east-coast consolidator by scooping up other newspapers and newspaper groups — perhaps even acquiring the East Coast holdings of MediaNews, papers in Pennsylvania and New England which, although dear to the heart of chairman Dean Singleton, are mostly a distraction to its Denver-based, California-centric holdings.

Obviously, the Philadelphia newspapers could be part of the reshuffle/consolidation, and other owners, including Gannett, could join the fray. (Gannett already is partnered with MediaNews in California.) It’s not hard to imagine an east-west strategy, with newspaper properties flowing into a western-U.S. consolidation led by MediaNews and an eastern grouping led by JRC. Even without mergers, there are places where Alden could encourage strategic partnerships between companies it owns or has invested in — for example, between JRC and the Philadelphia newspapers.

Shira Ovide of the Wall Street Journal noted, in response to the Alden acquisition of JRC, that there hadn’t been much action in the newspaper acquisitions market for some time. But the market could be loosening up. During the recession and beyond, owners held on, remembering the inflated values of the 1990s and early 2000s. It’s now clear both that those days will not come back and that Alden has its fingers on key factors that could build value: digital first, and consolidation. And Alden seems to have a nice cash pipeline.

Nostalgia for “local newspaper ownership” notwithstanding, the market will push owners into sales and mergers until there are just a few major owners of newspapers across the country. Even if this happens, daily print publication may still not be sustainable in many markets for more than a few years — but that’s another topic. The gamble for Alden and others is to accumulate a stake in a consolidated newspaper industry in the hopes that its local brands can retain (or regain) value as mainly digital enterprises.

Still, neither JRC’s digital-first focus nor industry consolidation strategies are magic bullets. Alden’s money chases risk in order to earn high rewards, and there’s a lot of risk in this picture.

On the digital-first side, we’re still waiting to see if newspapers can catch up and increase their share of the online ad market. JRC may have grown its online revenue by 70 percent, but in 2010 digital revenue for the daily newspaper industry as a whole grew just 10.9 percent, and still showed less online revenue than it had in 2007 ($3.042 billion in 2010 versus $3.166 billion in 2007). And much of what newspapers count as digital revenue is sold in print-dominated packages, not as pure online advertising.

As for consolidation, as I noted in a comment to Ken Doctor’s March post, “The Newsonomics of roll-up,” we could be looking at a classic industry mop-up operation — where the consolidator knows it’s all downhill from here, but is able to buy assets so cheaply that just milking them until they run dry produces a nice return. I wrote at the time in that comment:

While newspaper values have bounced back from rock bottom, you can still buy newspaper assets for a fraction of what they were worth at the peak six years ago (20 to 25 cents on the dollar, at most, depending on the company), with cash-flow paybacks in the range of 5-6 years, plus the consolidation benefits, plus, in many cases, valuable real estate that can be flipped. And with some luck, a digital spinoff or residual asset a few years down the road. So without much risk, maybe you can double your money over five years. (And if you’re really lucky, the economy keeps improving and you can find a bigger sucker and double your investment in just in a couple of years.) I believe that’s the Alden Global strategy. They have put their people on the board at MediaNews (and nowhere else) in order to use it as a launching platform for consolidation.

Let me temper that with the benefit of the doubt. John Paton says that Alden believes in digital-first. But if that strategy doesn’t begin to deliver the returns Alden expects — at JRC, MediaNews, or any other media outfit where Alden chooses to exercise the influence that comes with its ownership stake — the mop will come out of the closet and we’ll see a consolidation that’s driven purely by financial strategists at Wall Street firms, with no particular concern for journalism, digital or otherwise.

October 21 2010

14:00

The Newsonomics of the ad recovery

[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.]

Reading the news about the news business, you may have missed this: advertising is booming, again. Well, booming may be too strong a word, but overall, it’s growing. Unfortunately, the news about the news ad business is still negative. Not as negative as the negativity of last year — down 27 percent for 2009 — but still down in single digits over 2009. Being less negative than last year is good, it’s better, but my math doesn’t add that up to a positive.

So what we have here is a trend that’s held true from boom to bust through tepid recovery: newspaper companies’ continue to be the laggards, losing market share in ad revenue, by the week, month, and year.

This week’s reports from The New York Times Co., Media General, and McClatchy, and last week’s from Gannett, all point to the same numbers with a minus sign in front of them. Let’s look at the numbers, and the newsonomics of the ad recovery.

Overall ad spending is up 2.5 to 4 percent through the first nine months of the year, and forecasts call for it to come in at that rate for the full year.

Let’s pick that apart.

Local TV advertising is up 13 percent in 2010, according to BIA/Kelsey. National broadcasting is putting up double-digit numbers. Cable advertising is growing in single digits. Radio’s up about 6 percent.

Even magazine advertising, subject to similar doldrums as newspapers, was up 5.3 percentin the third quarter, its second consecutive quarter of positive growth.

Digital advertising picked up its pace rapidly at the beginning of 2010: up 11.3 percent over the first half of the year to $12.1 billion, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau. This digital growth is a long-term trend — online advertising is now a close No. 3 among advertising media in the U.S. (behind TV and newspapers). It’s surpassed TV, to become No. 2 in the UK, and surpassed newspapers to become No. 2 in Japan. (See The Newsonomics of online ad trending.)

As an aside, consider how much faster Google is growing than the online ad market, from which it derives almost all its revenue. In the third quarter, Google reported revenues of $7.29 billion — a 23-percent year-over-year increase.)

Now back to newspaper advertising. Gannett’s publishing revenues dropped 4.8 percent in the third quarter, while the The New York Times Co. was down 2.7 percent. McClatchy saw a 5.7-percent decline. Media General had even more problems: down 7.6 percent in pub revenues. Gannett’s and Media General’s revenues, overall, were helped by owning broadcast properties, as Media General’s 18.4-percent increase in broadcast helped it report an overall increase in year-over-year revenues. Broadcast revenues at Gannett were up 22.3 percent.

Why the great disparity between newspaper — meaning print newspaper — and the rest of the recovering ad world? We won’t take the space to parse it here and now. Suffice it to say that the long-term declines in classified categories — auto, real estate, and recruitment — have hurt the industry greatly. Now, though, even retail advertising is “coming back” quite unevenly, the bumpy road to recovery New York Times CEO Janet Robinson highlighted in her third-quarter report remarks.

The possible silver lining of the newspaper reports: Some digital revenue reports were on a par or better than the growth of online advertising overall. That hasn’t been the case consistently over the past couple of years, so the the latest numbers offer a ray of hope for the future.

If online advertising grew 11.3 percent overall, then compare that to the 3Q growth rates (not quite apples to apples, but not far off) at the New York Times Company (15 percent), Gannett (10 percent), MediaGeneral (15-22 percent, depending on how you count it) and McClatchy (1 percent). Those numbers indicate that some of those newspaper companies are doing a better job of selling digital advertising.

My talks with publishers and online directors point to several reasons for that good performance, ones long in discussion, but now becoming more routinely operational. The No. 1 reason: Publishers have simply focused more resources on selling digital products. They are also increasingly un-bundling products, not forcing as many print/digital buys. And, of course, they’re putting themselves in position to get spending in the fastest growing ad category — online — and devoting fewer resources to mining print revenues, which are declining in general.

So here’s the rub, and the conundrum. Newspaper companies are now pedaling as fast as they can, trying to get as digital as they as fast as they can, because that’s what the growth in ad dollars is happening. The New York Times Company says that 27 percent of its ad revenue is now driven by digital, and that’s up three points year over year. So it has a quarter of its ad business in the new world, and three-quarters in the old world. Add it up, and you get those negative numbers overall. The trick of the next several years: pedal (and peddle) even faster on the digital bike, while stoking the steady, if slowing train of print — and pray that the train doesn’t run out of coal too quickly.

February 25 2010

17:00

The Newsonomics of profit: Google’s and newspapers’

[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.]

Last Friday, Google finalized a modest acquisition. It bought On2, a video compression company for $124.6 million. A few days earlier, it bought reMail, a company put together by Google alums that has perfected a better email app for the iPhone, price undisclosed.

In the few months before that, it bought social search startup Aardvark, display ad tech company Teracent, collaborative real-time editor AppJet, VoIP provider Gizmo — and, most significantly, mobile ad network, AdMob, the latter for $750 million, in November.

Basically, Google’s been buying up companies at at least the rate of monthly, as CEO Eric Schmidt had bluntly forecast last September.

Of course, Google can buy lots of companies. That buying power is a rare commodity these days, especially if you compare it to what newspaper companies can do.

Google’s buying profit derives from its out-sized profits. Those profits reached almost $2 billion in the fourth quarter of 2009 alone, and totaled $6.5 billion for the year — and that the year of the Great Recession. Yes, Google hit the pause button as the country and the world tottered on the economic brink, but ticked the play button quickly as soon as it was clear the worst was over.

Google’s acquisitions in the last six months total something more than $1 billion.

Now let’s compare Google’s profit to that of newspaper companies.

Gannett — the largest news company in the US and second worldwide after News Corp — reported total revenue of $1.5 billion in the fourth quarter, and profits of only $133.6 million in the same quarter. Of course, the fourth quarter was Gannett’s best. For 2009 overall, profits totaled $441.6 million, after special items were taken out. That’s less than a half billion dollars in profits, or about 7% of what Google earned. And that’s the biggest U.S. news company.

The New York Times eked out a yearly profit of $19 million. McClatchy, a gain of $54 million. Media General, a loss of $35 million.

Positive or negative, those are all small numbers. They all point to the same reality: newspaper companies’ place in the business world is greatly reduced. They simply don’t have the wherewithal to acquire businesses that will be the building blocks of tomorrow’s growth. Their low profit numbers are proxies for their reduced horizons, their reduced reporting impact and their reduced institutional and community clout, as well, though those are issues for another day.

For Google, its profit has allowed it to lay the groundwork for growth. Its financial performance is hugely impressive today, but almost all of its revenue has been based on desktop/laptop paid search. As many have said, it’s a one-trick pony, but with the best trick found in the 21st century digital business. It knows that business is maturing, so we can see the theme in its company-a-month buying spree: mobile, social, video. That combo, what I call the new trifecta for this digital decade, anticipates where digital use — and ad spending — is going. Google is not only providing us pictures of our urban topography through StreetView, it is laying new roads for its own highly profitable future.

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