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January 11 2012

19:00

The Philadelphia Experiment: Why a media company wants to be a tech incubator

One side effect of downsizing at most newspapers: a surplus of office space. That may be a cold blooded way of seeing the empty desks that haunt newsrooms and advertising departments, but in an era where newspapers get bought largely for the value of their underlying real estate, the fact is that’s square footage that could be put to use.

Consider the example of the Philadelphia Media Network, owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News, which has welcomed three startups inside their walls with the launch of the Project Liberty Digital Incubator. Thanks to some funds from the Knight Foundation the media company is offering itself up as a rent-free test kitchen for six months to CloudMine, SnipSnap, and ElectNext, early-stage tech companies starting out in Philly.

PMN isn’t offering up a couch to crash on purely out of the kindness of its heart: As a condition of the incubator they get an early look at whatever apps, tools, or projects the teams are working on. That would be great in itself, particularly because the companies are focused on markets that align with newspapers: SnipSnap is working on an app to scan and save coupons for mobile, ElectNext is building an app to help better connect voters to candidates, and CloudMine is creating a platform for seamless app development.

But what PMN wants more is to better expose their staffs to the world of startups and tech. There are clear lessons for journalism from people whose work emphasizes identifying audiences, monetization, and rapid iteration. If the journalists and geeks can bump into one another, there’s potential for some beneficial cross-pollination, Philadelphia Media Network CEO Gregory Osberg told me. The media network is working on its own digital offerings (Remember, this is the same company offering Android tablets to readers) and the best way to get that process to speed up is through learning from companies operating in markets like e-commerce and mobile, Osberg said. The three companies each signed non-disclosure agreements to gain access to PMN data that might be helpful as they progress their work. That means within the next few months, we could see apps from the three companies branded under the Inquirer, Daily News, or Philly.com.

It’s like having a skunkworks without paying full retail price. In the media world, that’s a bonus considering the length of time it takes to recruit and build a team of developers, producers, and others who want to work in journalism. Even better: After this six-month period, they’ll bring in a fresh group of tech companies for a new round. “This takes us to market much quicker than if we were to staff up, which takes a big investment but takes a long time in the product development cycle,” Osberg said.

One thing Osberg is clear about is that while CloudMine, ElectNext, and SnipSnap are in the building and sharing the elevator with the rest of the staff of the media network, they’re not employees — their work is their property. And that’s a good thing. “We’re rooting for their success,” Osberg said. “We’re not here to absorb their companies or slow them down. We’re here to stimulate and become a catalyst for them.”

Lots of media companies are trying to adopt the methods, philosophy and talent of the independent (read: non-journalism related) tech community. In some cases, it’s through straight-up acquisitions (CNN and Zite, Financial Times and Assanka). Other times, it’s investment, as with Digital First Media, which runs the Journal Register Co. and MediaNews Group, announcing its own plans to invest in startups that align with corners of the journalism business like advertising, content, and audience development.

The Boston Globe has an informal incubator with people from a half-dozen small firms at various stages of development, all working out of the Globe’s headquaters. Jeff Moriarty, vice president of digital products for the Globe, told me over email “We had extra space here at the Globe and wanted to create an environment around our digital lab and digital development area where we have smart people working on interesting things.” The companies (Twine, Muckrock, Schedit, among others), work in areas like video and social media, were a natural fit, and could provide support to the Globe’s own products in the future. “We figure that the more smart people we have in the room, the better our opportunities to test and explore new ideas and also to expand our network of contacts in the digital space in Boston,” he said.

In many cases, media companies are taking a quieter approach, offering hack day events like those at the Globe and The New York Times. Or it’s through grant-funded collaborations like the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Fellows, which dropped developers right in the middle of newsrooms at places like Al Jazeera English, Zeit Online, The Guardian, and the Globe.

When I asked Osberg what would the best outcome for the project, he talked in terms of the impact to the Philadelphia community, not just his media properties. “Success would be that we would have some of their technology utilitized in our product offerings, and that they were able to leverage the success of that offering in the marketplace to take their company to the next level,” he said.

Image by the University of Iowa Libraries used under a Creative Commons license

July 21 2011

15:30

The newsonomics of U.S. media concentration

The rise and potential fall of Rupert Murdoch is a hell of a story. It is, though, closer to the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins’ description Tuesday, “not a Berlin Wall moment, just daft hysteria.” Facing only the meager competition of the slow-as-molasses debt-ceiling story, the Murdoch story managed to hit during the summer doldrums. Plus it’s great theater.

Is it just imported theater, though? We have to wonder how much the cries of “media monopoly” will cross the Atlantic. Is there much resonance here in the States for the outrage about media power in the U.K.? Will the sins (its newspaper unit now being called to account by a Parliamentary committee for deliberately blocking the hacking investigation) of News International impact its cousin, Fox Television, the one part of its U.S. holdings regulated directly by government — or can it build a firewall between the different parts of News Corp.? (See “New News Corp. Strategy: Become Even More of an American Company.”)

Certainly, the tales of News International’s ability to strike fear in the London political class are chilling. Our issues in the U.S., though, are largely different. Both come down to who owns the media, and what we need in the diversity of news voices.

The question of media concentration here is tricky, complex, and a profoundly local question. Yes, there are national issues — but the forces of cheaper, digital publishing and promise of national and global markets easily reached by the Internet have spawned much more competition on a national level.

As to what kind of local reporting we get, we see powerful forces at work, shaping who owns what and how much. Likely, we’ll see some News Corp. fallout in FCC debates now re-igniting in and around Washington, D.C. — as the fire of regulating media burns more brightly here, even as Ofcom, the British regulator, grapples with similar issues.

That said, the question of media concentration, or what I will call the newsonomics of U.S. media concentration, will be fought out on two battlegrounds in the U.S. One is at the regulatory level, as the FCC looks at cross-ownership and the cap on local broadcast news holdings by a single national company, like News Corp., and may take into account its U.K. misdeeds. (Especially if the 9/11 victim wiretapping claims are borne out.) Second, and probably more important, sheer economic change is rapidly re-shaping who owns the news media on which we depend. The fast-eroding economics of the traditional print newspaper business are changing the face both of competition and of journalistic practice faster than any government policy can affect.

So this is how our time may play out. Smart, digital-first roll-ups align with massive consolidation.

First, let’s look at the print trade, at mid-year. The numbers are awful, and getting no better. We’ve seen the 22nd consecutive quarter of no-ad-growth for U.S. dailies, the last positive sign registered back in 2006. Further staff reductions, albeit with less public announcement, continue at most major news companies. This week, Gannett — still the largest U.S. news company — reported a 7-percent ad revenue decline for the second quarter, typical among its peers. Its digital ad revenues were up 13 percent, a slowing of digital ad growth also being seen around the industry.

We see a strategy of continuing cost-cutting across the board, with a new phenomenon — roll-up (“The newsonomics of roll-up“) — trying to play out.

Hedge funds — which bought into the industry through and after 14 newspaper company bankruptcies — are having their presence felt. Most recently, Alden Global Capital, the quietest major player in the American news industry, bought out its partners and now owns 100 percent of Journal Register Company. Alden, with interests in as many as 10 U.S. newspaper chains, apparently liked the moves of CEO John Paton. Paton’s digital-first strategies have more rapidly cut legacy costs than other publishers’ moves, and moved the needle more quickly in upping digital revenues.

No terms were announced, but Paton says “all its lenders were paid in full.” That would be a qualified success, given the bath everyone involved in the newspaper industry has taken in the last half-decade.

In JRC’s case, we’d have to say the push of hedge funds for faster change has been more positive than negative. Pre-bankruptcy, it was derided for its poor journalism and soul-crushing budgeting. Under Paton, who has brought in innovators like Arturo Duran, Jim Brady, and Steve Buttry, the company is trying to reinvent new, digital-first local, preserving local journalism jobs as much as possible. A work very much in early progress.

You can bet that Alden’s move is just one of its first. Sure, as a hedge fund, it may just be getting JRC ready to sell; hedge funds don’t want to be long-term operators. Before that happens, though, expect the next shoe to drop: consolidation.

JRC owns numerous properties around Philly, and a roll-up with Greg Osberg-led (and Alden part-owned) Philadelphia Media Network, has been talked about. Meld the same kind of synergies, and faster-moving print-to-digital strategies of Paton with Osberg’s new multi-point, Project Liberty plan, and you have a combined strategy. Further combine the operations into a single company — removing more overhead, more administration, more cost — and you have a better business to hold, or sell, or still further combine with still more regional entities.

It’s not just a Philly scenario.

In southern California, the question is how the three once-bankrupt operations — Freedom Communications, MediaNews’ Los Angeles News Group and Tribune’s L.A. Times (still not quite post-bankrupt, but acting like it is) — will mate. Over price, talks broke down about merging Freedom and MediaNews (both substantially owned by Alden; see Rick Edmonds’ Poynter piece for detail). Yet, everyone in the market believes consolidation will come. Now with Platinum Equity, another private equity owner, putting its San Diego Union-Tribune back on the market just two years after buying it for a song, we could see massive consolidation of newspaper companies in southern California.

Media concentration, perhaps in the works: Southern California, between L.A. and San Diego, contains at least 21 million people — or a third of the total population of the U.K. Philly and Southern California may among the first to consolidate, but the trends are the same everywhere.

So this is how our time may play out. Smart, digital-first roll-ups align with massive consolidation. It’s time to get our heads around that. That won’t necessarily mean that Alden, or other hyper-private owners, keep the new franchises. Their goal probably is to sell. But to whom, with what sense of public interest?

Which brings us back to broadcast, to which newspaper people give much too little shrift.

Both those in the old declining newspaper trade and those in the mature and largely flat broadcast trade (as an indication, Gannett’s broadcast division revenues grew to $184.4 million from $184 million in the second quarter) are beginning to figure the future this way: there may only be enough ad revenue in mid-metro markets (and smaller) to maintain one substantial journalistic operation. Not one newspaper and one local broadcaster. But, one, presumably combined text and video, paper and air, increasingly digital operation.

So, finally, let’s turn back to the FCC. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals just returned cross-ownership regulations back to the FCC, largely on procedural (“hey, you forgot the public input part”) grounds. In addition, it will likely soon take up the national cap on local broadcast ownership. (Good sum-up of FCC-related action by Josh Smith at the National Journal.)

Which brings us back to the News Corp story. The national cap — how much of the U.S. any one national company can serve with local broadcast — is 39 percent. Fox News does that with 27 stations, and, of course, has lobbied for more reach. So, the media concentration issue may play out as the cap is further debated, and as cross-ownership — a News Corp. issue in and around New York/New Jersey — returns as well. Will Hackgate’s winds blow westward, as local broadcast news concentration comes up again?

Though it may be shocking to many newspaper people, though, local TV news is a major source of how people get the news. Some 25 to 28 million viewers watch local early-evening or late-evening TV news, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism. That compares to about a 42-million weekday newspaper circulation, so those numbers aren’t quite apples to apples. In my research for Outsell, I noted that local survey data indicated that reliance on TV news equaled that of newspapers.

As Steve Waldman’s strong report for the FCC pointed out, local TV news is “more important than ever” — but thin on accountability reporting.

So while much of the media concentration questions centers on print, local broadcast ownership, and direction of news coverage, matters a lot.

Combine that local concentration — 39 percent or more — with the sense that the market may only support single journalistic entitities and we’re back to the theme of media concentration, perhaps on a scale hitherto unseen.

A declining local press, with signs of impending roll-up. Stronger local TV news, weaker in accountability reporting, and pushing for more roll-up. Winds of outrage wafting over the Atlantic. Regulatory breezes gaining strength.

These are powerful forces colliding, and in the balance, the news of the day won’t be quite the same.

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.

February 24 2011

15:30

The Newsonomics of the digital mercado

Editor’s Note: Each week, Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of news for the Lab.

It’s as old as organized humanity itself: the mercado, the bazaar, the marketplace. We love to visit Old World marketplaces as we travel abroad. At home, our own shopping is now a mish-mash of malls, big box stores, neighborhood shops, and online commerce. Amazon, itself, is now a $34 billion business, and its Prime delivery program can deliver just about anything (my favorite buy: an electric mower) right to your door, seeming so local.

We can research almost any purchase. We can compare prices. We can get advice and reviews from hordes we’ll never meet.

Yet it’s far from nirvana. Navigating the byways of web commerce, other than great walled gardens like Amazon, can be frustrating. Numerous culs-de-sac interrupt us. Price-comparison sites like Price Grabber, Google Product Search, Shopzilla, and UK’s Kelkoo only seem to give us a partial view of what’s available. It’s tough to know when reviews may be gamed. Sites like preprint-digitizer Shop Local (“Your Local Weekly Ads, All in One Place”), owned by Gannett, seems curiously backwards, like replica E-Edition newspaper products for reading. Trying to compare model numbers, on sites like CNET or Best Buy, can give us digital nervous breakdowns.

Within the infinity of shopping choice, a lot of us would like some order.

That’s what the new Find n Save product aims to provide, and for the benefit of newspaper companies. Find n Save is the latest effort from newspaper companies to reclaim what they consider to be their birthright, maybe a third generation of such marketplaces following the ShopLocals and the earlier Storerunners.

Find ‘n Save focuses us on a decade-old-plus newspaper company problem.

While the daily newspaper — with its display and classified ads, its Sunday circulars, and its Wednesday food coupon – used to be the leading local marketplace, it now is just part of the pack. One number — print ad revenue halved in 10 years to $24.8 billion in 2009 (no final tally is yet in for 2010, which was still lower in single-digit decline) in the U.S. — gives real meaning to this splintering of commerce.

Digital media, with its search-led research/price comparison abilities and, now, with the new couponing craze, has wrought havoc with the newspaper business model.  All of that digital commerce has been disruptive and disintermediating. Yet there’s been more disintermediation (of traditional publisher/merchant relationships) than remediation.

We turn to lots of digital media to research and shop, but we have few go-to places of habit, again with Amazon making the greatest inroads into our shopping lives so far.

From a customer-centric perspective, it’s never been more confusing to find good deals. Yes, they seem to come from every quarter — print circulars, the web overall, direct mail, eBay alerts, Amazon “notifications” — but they’re disordered.

A recent study by the BIA/Kelsey group puts a number on the proliferation of marketplace choice. The annual study points to consumers using an average of 7.9 different media to make buying decisions in 2010, compared to only 5.6 in 2007. Buying’s gotten more complex.

The flipside, of course, is that merchants’ own choices about how to market have gotten more complex (“The Newsonomics of  Eight Per Cent Reach“), with small- and medium-sized businesses using 4.6 media to reach customers in 2010, as compared to 3 in 2007.

So taking a look at Find n Save, let’s look at the Newsonomics of the would-be new mercado, and what it will take to make these new marketplaces bigger business for local media.

McClatchy’s newspapers are the first big clients for Find n Save, a product of Travidia, a long-time player in the print-to-digital ad conversion business. Find n Save replaces Marketplace 360, the company’s former regional marketplace product.

Two big McClatchy papers — its hometown Sacramento Bee and the Kansas City Star — launched Find n Save in November. The company’s other big sites, from the Miami Herald to its North Carolina properties (Charlotte and Raleigh) and the Fort Worth Star Telegram, should feature it by July 1, with the rest of the company’s 30 markets putting Find n Save in place by year’s end. MediaNews’ flagship Denver Post will also launch it soon.

It’s not the only new effort at a regional marketplace.

Find n Save will soon by joined by another regional commerce portal. FYI Philly will launch this spring, in the greater Philadelphia region, two of its principals tell me. It’s conceived as a commerce portal, details to come. Significantly, it’s the result of unprecedented cooperation among four newspaper competitors in that region: Philadelphia Media Network (the new parent of the Inquirer and Daily News), the Journal Register company, Gannett, and Calkins Newspapers.

For Chris Hendricks, McClatchy’s VP/interactive, the Find n Save push is about a grand goal: reclaiming retail advertising. While the destruction of print classifieds has been well chronicled, the steady decline of local retail has been less so. You can figure that retail advertising has declined about $7 billion annually since its 2001 height. Yes, online display advertising has yielded some retail revenue, but doesn’t come close to recreating the lost revenue — or the lost sense of marketplace. 

So Hendricks talks about “blowing up retail” — and reordering it with Find n Save. “People are searching more and more for local services and products,” he says. “And they’re getting more and more confused.”

Find n Save aims to bring some simplicity to that confusion. Take a look at it, and you can see it’s a work in progress. What we notice about it — very prominently — is the deal of the day. Yes, Find n Save aims to take advantage of the Groupon revolution. Some Find n Save sites are partnered with Groupon, while others offer their own deals of the day. The idea is that the deal of the day isn’t just a new ad play, a new revenue source, for news sites; it’s also a new gateway to local commerce. The rest of Find n Save shows its ambitions:

  • It gives prominence to other local couponing, deals without the social must-buy incentives of the daily deal. Subway sandwiches, vacuum cleaners, lots of restaurants, and car care — but all in one place.
  • It incorporates product search, as have previous versions of the product. Consumers can search by product, brand, and store, among other attributes, narrowing or expanding search as they wish, and see where that product is available locally. The big allure, here, is the ability to check whether a product is in stock, at multiple, close-by locations. Search for lamps or shoes or spas, and you’ll find a motley assortment of offers.

So far, the November-launched sites have seen their marketplace traffic “quintuple,” says James Green, chief marketing officer of Travidia and an alum of Raleigh’s pioneering Nando Media. He says that’s due mainly due to “product-centric search engine optimization,” providing a new level of prominence in Google search results. If that base can keep growing, Chris Hendricks sees the sites becoming commercial magnets. Possible new, related streams can include display ads, offering prominence and placement, charging local retailers for ingestion of their inventories and conversion of their print material generally and topical directories, he says.

“Deals are the content,” says Hendricks. He notes, for instance, that news sites’ attempts to connect up editorial content with restaurant directories — using newspapers’ unique and core strengths — hasn’t produced the dividends many of us thought they would. Forget the packaging of feature content with ads; just focus on the ads.

So what can we make of this step forward?

Well, it’s a step, but probably many more are needed. Fronting a site with coupons makes some sense, and will pull in additional audience. Yet the overall research and shopping experience will have to be fuller if these are to become go-to sites with masses of local buyers.

It’s hard to know how many years we are away from the perfection of commerce — you know, getting each of us the kinds of timely and meaningful shopping offers that bring order out of the digital shopping chaos. Certainly, though, here is some of what will be needed:

  • Broader, deeper databases of products: That’s simple to say, and hard to achieve. I asked James Green whether Find n Save is a breakthrough product. Not yet, he said, saying that there’s not yet “enough conversion.” That translates as product search being too spotty; provision of retailers’ real-time inventories is still a work-in-progress. If we as consumers run into more dead-ends than usable deals, we’ll stop coming back.
  • Reviews and recommendations: Find n Save contains none. In a world of imperfect knowledge, we love seeing what dozens of others think of products and services, just like in the early mercados. What’s new, good, and fresh? Throw out the reviews that are outliers, and we’ve got a better-than-even shot of making a better buying decision. Sites without them lack the critical component found in sites from Amazon to Best Buy to Yelp.
  • Preferences and customer knowledge: While some of us are highly concerned about privacy, many others say, ‘Just use your tracking to give me what I want — including deals — and stop spamming me with useless ads.’ So the ability to state preferences and to have my digital behavior intelligently watched — for my benefit — will be a big differentiator.
  • A great tablet product. James Green says Find n Save’s mobile app will be ready soon. Apps are, of course, becoming a price of admission for mobile customers. More importantly, the winning local marketplace will figure out how to combine deep, broad shopping info, social reviews, deals — and to fully embrace the interactive and visual capabilities of the tablet. Just as the iPad — and its newer cousins — are the big do-over opportunity for news companies’ reader business models, they’re also literally a blank slate for the new mercado.

Who will build it? It could be a Travidia, or an Amazon or a Google or a Facebook or a Flipboard-for-commerce so far unborn. There are billions of dollars baiting the hook.

January 20 2011

21:00

The shakeup at MediaNews: Why it could be the leadup to a massive newspaper consolidation

[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.]

Back in the early 1990s, Dean Singleton predicted that ultimately there would be just three newspaper companies left standing, and he intended his MediaNews Group to be one of them.

It was an audacious prediction, because at the time, after a decade of wheeling, dealing and sometimes ruthless management, MediaNews Group still consisted of just a dozen newspapers, and the company’s board meetings, as he was fond of saying, “could be held in the front seat of a pickup truck.” But Singleton often repeated his prediction of industry consolidation, and it was the driver behind MediaNews’s growth into the sixth largest newspaper company (in terms of circulation) over the past 15 years. Today MediaNews has 54 daily newspapers with a total of 2.4 million weekday circulation. (On its own site, MediaNews claims to be the “second largest media company,” but that’s a double stretch: Its properties are nearly all newspaper entities, and, by my count, Gannett, Tribune, News Corp., McClatchy and Advance have more daily paid print circulation — and are certainly all bigger media companies than MediaNews.)

MediaNews’s growth was accomplished not only through acquisitions but through innovative regional partnerships such as the California Newspaper Partnership, and was paid for through a complex and ever-changing leverage structure put together by the financial wizardry of Singleton’s associate Joseph “Jody” Lodovic IV.

But over the past few years, opportunities for Singleton to pursue his vision came to a halt. MediaNews could not outrun the ticking clock of debt accumulation; revenues plummeted; newspaper values tumbled; and lenders threatened foreclosure. Lodovic engineered a strategic and very quick bankruptcy that wiped out $765 million in debt by placing nearly all of the company’s stock in the hands of the former bondholders. Remarkably, the bankruptcy reorganization left him and Singleton in charge and with a small equity stake, plus the opportunity to earn back an equity position up to 20 percent. They also had theoretical control in the form of the power to appoint a majority of the board.

The shakeup

It was an unusual outcome — in other major newspaper bankruptcies, the lenders have imposed new management. For example, there have already been several changes at the top in Tribune’s ongoing bankruptcy process; at Freedom Communications, longtime chief Burl Osborne was replaced by Mitchell Stern, whose background includes CEO stints at Fox Television Stations, Inc. and Direct TV; at the Phildelphia Media Network, the publisher of the Inquirer and Daily News, Greg Osberg, a veteran of Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report, was handed the reigns; and at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Michael Klingensmith, a longtime Time Inc. executive, became CEO following the paper’s emergence from bankruptcy.

And then there is Journal Register Company, which emerged from bankruptcy in August 2009 and was once known as one of the most rapacious of publishing firms. “Tell me a Jelenic story,” Singleton would ask new refugees from Journal Register hired by one of his papers, referring to the sometimes ludicrous anecdotes of skinflint budget management attributed to Journal Register CEO Robert Jelenic and his lieutenant, CFO Jean Clifton. But under its post-bankruptcy CEO, John Paton, Journal Register Company has become a forward-thinking, innovative organization with a digital-enterprise management style, and has even instituted a profit-sharing plan which was on track, as of October, to make a substantial year-end payout.

So given that the normal pattern is for the post-bankruptcy owners to dump the old leadership team, it should not be surprising that the MediaNews creditors-turned-owners considered Singleton and Lodovic to be on probation. And it turns out that their trial period is over. On Tuesday, MediaNews announced a shakeup in which Lodovic (who has no street-level newspaper or digital operating experience, and whose financial skills were no longer relevant in the post-bankruptcy structure) was ousted and Singleton was reassigned to “executive chairman of the board” — ostensibly with strategic and deal-making responsibilities described specifically as “opportunities to optimize the company’s portfolio of properties and consolidation opportunities in the newspaper industry.”

On the surface, this looks like a way for Singleton to pursue his vision of consolidation, something he alluded to at the time MediaNews emerged from bankruptcy. But in reality, the shakeup robs him of nearly all his clout. The Singleton-Lodovic appointees to the MediaNews board are gone, replaced by new directors representing the stockholders group led by Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund firm which has acquired a large, though not controlling, stake. Several interim executive positions were also filled by people related to Alden or its parent, Smith Management LLC. While Singleton may have ideas for strategic consolidations, without Lodovic he lacks the necessary financial engineering savvy, and without control of the board, he can’t make anything happen. The new title for Singleton looks and feels like a face-saving ambassadorial position.

Consolidation?

So the question becomes, what will happen next? For clues, it is worth digging into Alden Global Capital and a web of investment cross-connections that tie it and several other hedge funds and investment banks to most of the major newspaper firms that have experienced bankruptcies in the last few years.

Consider the following list of investment banks, hedge funds and investment managers that have been reported to be involved in various bankrupt or post-bankrupt publishing companies (note, though, that because most of these are private investments by relatively secretive players, it’s not possible to know whether all of them are still involved as listed, or what their ownership percentages are):

MediaNews Group: A large stake is held by Alden Global Capital; the reorganization was led by BankAmerica and involved 116 lender-creditors.

Philadelphia Media Network (publisher of the Inquirer and Daily News): Alden Global Capital, Angelo, Gordon & Co, Credit Suisse, Citizens Bank, CIT Group.

Journal Register Company: Alden Global Capital, JPMorgan Chase.

Freedom Communications: Alden Global Capital.

Tribune Company: Alden Global Capital, Angelo, Gordon & Company, Greywolf Capital, Oak Tree Capital Management, JPMorgan Chase. (Note, in this case, the players are not on the same page yet, with Alden and others filing suit against JPMorgan and others.)

Minneapolis Star-Tribune: Angelo, Gordon & Company, Credit Suisse, Wayzata Investment Partners.

Postmedia Network Inc.: The Canadian group acquired the newspaper holdings of bankrupt Canwest Global Communications Corporation with backing from Golden Tree Asset Management as well as Alden Global Media and a number of smaller investment funds. John Paton, CEO of the above-listed Journal Register Company, serves as an advisor and recruited its CEO, Paul Godfrey, a media executive who also did a stint as CEO of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Morris Communications: The lone publisher with no apparent overlapping investors shared with the others; its principal creditor in bankruptcy was Wilmington Trust FSB. But Wilmington is a bank, and in most of these cases the banks have been flipping their holdings to the hedge funds.

Clearly, Alden is the outfit with the most skin in the game, having investments in MediaNews, Freedom, Philadelphia Media, Journal Register, Freedom, Tribune and Postmedia. (Incidentally, as a further extension of this network, JP Morgan Chase, which has been involved in the Tribune, Freedom and Journal Register reorganizations, is the largest stockholder at Gannett, with a 10.2 percent “passive” investment.)

With all these interrelationships among investors and “distressed” newspaper firms, it’s not hard to see why Dean Singleton might say that achieving some kind of “consolidation” will be a full-time job. Still, it seems unlikely that Singleton will get to pull the strings, when the money behind the interlocking investment structures is controlled by billionaire Randall Smith, Alden’s founder, who built his fortune through investments in junk bonds and distressed properties. Alden acquired most of its newspaper stakes through its Alden Global Distressed Opportunities Fund, which it launched in 2008 and which is now worth nearly $3 billion. Alden has offices in New York, Dallas, Dubai and Mumbai, along with a tax-haven presence on the Channel Island Jersey.

The tip of the iceberg of consolidation shows in rumors of a possible merger between Freedom and MediaNews. This would be of strategic value particularly in California, where MediaNews already controls about 26 percent of the newspaper market by circulation through its California Newspaper Partnership created by Singleton and Lodovic. MediaNews, Gannett and Stephens Media Group all contributed newspapers to the partnership, in which each firm holds a proportionate equity stake and profit share, but which is controlled and managed by MediaNews. Combining MediaNews and Freedom would add another 7 percent, bringing the total to 33 percent. Antitrust is unlikely to be a big hurdle, since the MediaNews and Freedom holdings compete only at territorial margins and the continuing decline in newspaper revenue and circulation is a sufficient argument for the need to consolidate.

Alden could be seeing the California opportunity not only as a chance to find additional cost savings through production efficiency, but more importantly as a way to gain revenue through market share, both in print and online. Conceivably, because of Alden’s role in Tribune, the Los Angeles Times could end up as part of the partnership as well, boosting the consortium to about half the state’s paid circulation.

This California consolidation opportunity could be used as a model for similar possibilities elsewhere. For example, in New England, a combination of MediaNews, Journal Register and Tribune would have properties in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts — totaling about 25 percent of circulation in those states, on a par with the current California partnership. On a countrywide basis, the companies in which Alden appears to have a stake and some degree of influence, as detailed above, have about 15 percent of all circulation and if fully merged, would be about 10 percent bigger than the current champion, Gannett. Gannett currently holds only about 13 percent of total circulation, and when compared with most other media such as television, cable, radio and magazines, the patchworked map of newspaper ownership and its lack of concentration of ownership both now seem outdated and inefficient. Singleton’s early vision of three principal players owning most of the newspaper landscape is increasingly likely.

But it must be done right. Strategic geographic consolidations, if operationally led (one hopes) by someone of Paton’s caliber, could be a potent force for the rejuvenation of the industry, including a renewed focus on what, after all, is the principal product and potential strength of all three companies: local journalism, along with Paton’s strong emphasis on digital-first, print-last thinking.

MediaNews’s own statement on the reorganization seems to echo this: “These measures will strengthen the company’s performance in its core markets, and continue the transformation of the business from a print-oriented newspaper company to a locally focused provider of news and information across multiple platforms.”

It’s really the last hope for the newspaper business, but a pessimistic view is possible, of course. Randall Smith, Alden’s CEO, is a shrewder and more sophisticated financial engineer than Lodovic was as Singleton’s second-in-command, and Alden’s ultimate interest is in earning a strong return on its investments, not in the future of journalism, so its strategy is at heart a financial one. And, yes, consolidation will come at the cost of jobs.

But Smith also knows that the only way to win his big bet on the future of newspapers is to turn them into nimble, modern digital news enterprises, and even Singleton (who rarely touches a computer) seems to agree.

Let’s hope they both listen to Paton, who said in a December speech:

Stop listening to newspaper people. We have had nearly 15 years to figure out the Web and as an industry we newspaper people are no good at it. No good at it at all. Want to get good at it? Then stop listening to the newspaper people and start listening to the rest of the world. And, I would point out, as we have done at JRC – put the digital people in charge – of everything.

Disclosure: I worked for MediaNews Group for 13 years as a publisher in its newspapers in Pittsfield and North Adams, Mass. and Brattleboro, Vt. In a previous post, I asked whether Singleton could steer MediaNews to a digital future.

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