Tumblelog by Soup.io
Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

May 30 2013

11:36

The newsonomics of climbing the ad food chain

The numbers are sobering.

While digital advertising has been growing at a 15 percent pace annually in the United States, the digital ad sales of news companies have largely plateaued, struggling to find any growth year over year. The New York Times Company reported digital ad sales down 4 percent for the 1st quarter, while McClatchy managed a 1.5 percent increase in the first quarter. Most news-based companies are significantly underperforming that 15 percent average — in the low single digits, either positive or negative. Meanwhile, the top five digital ad companies, led by Google, increase their share of ad revenue year after year and soon will hold two-thirds of it.

Why are publishers lagging?

Publishers describe their digital ad woe with these terms: “price compression,” “bargain-basement ad networks,” and “death of the banner ad.” Each describes a world of hyper-competition in digital advertising — a world of almost infinite ad possibility and unyielding downward pricing pressure.

Not long ago, news companies believed that their premium-pricing models would withstand the competitive onslaught. Now they’re retooling, trying to speed their adaptation to the new nature of the digital ad beast.

It’s a matter of survival. For some, all-access circulation revenues are a good positive (pushing overall circ revenue up 5 percent in the U.S. last year). All, though, find themselves running as fast as they can to make up both for the freefall of print ad loss and that overall digital ad pricing downturn. “The ground is falling away under you” is how FT.com managing director Rob Grimshaw describes it.

Let’s look at what some of the leading digital ad innovators among publishers are doing to regroup. Let’s look at the newsonomics of climbing the ad food chain, checking in with two global publishers, The New York Times and the Financial Times, and two regional ones, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Digital First Media. They provide a snapshot of a world in ever-spinning change.

Their strategies are all fairly similar: employ a range of new techniques that will justify premium prices. Let Facebook, which controls as much as a quarter of all web ad inventory, sell at 80-cent CPM and make money on scale. Publishers know they will never win that game. They want rates *20 to 50* times that, offering increasingly better targeting of their affluent readers.

Climbing the ad food chain is mainly about three things: technology, creativity, and sales relationships. It is also, overall, about differentiation, the roar of a lion in a crowded landscape.

Grimshaw, a former ad guy, says simply: “You’ve got to be doing something unique.”

Let’s look at each of the areas:

Technology

Digital advertising is all about technology in 2013, and you’ll see lots of talk of the ad-tech stack, and who owns it. Google, of course, owns much of it, through its successive AdWords/Doubleclick/AdMob and more creations, acquisitions and integrations. Its stack is so efficient that many publishers feel compelled to use it, though they are wary of getting their businesses tied ever more directly to Google — or the Google “Death Star,” as some critics call it.

For most publishers, Google is the classic frenemy. They work with it when they think the advantages outweigh the hazards, even as top publishers build their own programs. In fact, expect to soon see U.S. news publishers transition their Newspaper Consortium partnership with Yahoo into something intended to be broader, something that allows publishers to opt into and out of the ad programs of multiple portals — not just Yahoo — harnessing the ad tech of the day.

Six-month-old Smart Match is one of the FT’s latest innovations to stay “premium.” In brief, the content of an advertisement is matched, dynamically, to that of an article. The technology: semantic targeting of both article content and the FT’s current “ad library” for the best matches on the fly, as compared to standard keyword targeting.

Advertisers commit specific budgets for specific time periods, and the FT does the matching. The FT says it gets a major lift in ad engagement with the technology, an average of 9x over its average clickthrough. Ten clients are now live in Smart Match’s soft launch period.

Ad effectiveness isn’t a one-time process; breakthroughs like Smart Match require ongoing engagement with marketers, as publishers work with them to figure out what works and what doesn’t — and to tweak constantly. “Ads can’t be a fire-and-forget enterprise” any longer, says Grimshaw.

The FT is setting floors on pricing and better controlling inventory, testing small “private exchanges” with select ad buyers and agencies, working with Google in the U.S. and Rubicon in Europe. Exchanges have caused publishers lots of headaches, as too much of their inventory — mixed and matched with lots of “lower quality” inventory — helped drive down pricing and deflated the meaning of “premium.” So many have pulled back from exchanges in general; a few are starting to harness the exchange concept, but in a members-only approach.

“We are constantly evolving our approach to the programmatic marketplace, and private exchange activity is one part,” says Todd Haskell, the New York Times Co. group vice president for advertising. “We’ve been using private exchanges for a series of single-client buys executed using private exchange technology, and are now exploring several single buyer/multiple brand programs.”

One big notion here: minimize channel conflict, so that a publisher isn’t competing with itself, making its inventory available at variable prices here and there. Private exchanges are proceeding cautiously. Buyers get more flexibility, but within the control of publishers.

Such private exchange testing follows the adoption of RTB (real-time-bidding), which publishers are honing to get better rates for the ad inventory they can’t sell locally. “We moved away from a remnant inventory model a few years ago with the adoption of RTB and actively manage all of the programmatic demand that we see through the ad exchanges,” says Jeff Griffing, the Star Tribune’s chief revenue officer. “As a single-entity, local site publisher, our strategy is to make sure as many bidders/buyers as possible can transact on their audience impressions that we fulfill on our site.”

Similarly, Digital First Media is moving to add new data — including third-party data from traditonal sources like Experian — into its own systems. “As we move more into the programatic world, with our own Trading Desk and all our own inventory in our private exchange, we keep adding data to all that traffic and match it in a way that enhances the ROI for the small and medium advertisers,” says Digital First Ventures managing director Arturo Duran.

Ad tech is also allowing publishers to do things they couldn’t previously do. The Times is using new brand new ad formats to help marketers gain interactivity. One new program will allow for coupon delivery within an app.

The idea of delivering more experiences within experiences — rather than alongside — can be seen in another recent announcement. Twitter Amplify allows advertisers to deliver videos in-stream — part of a slew of ad-friendly moves, well described by Ingrid Lunden at TechCrunch. Among the early partners to sign on: BBC America, Fox, Fuse, and The Weather Channel. The goals here: make ads both more experiential and more lead-generating.

Yield optimization is a term now part of everyone’s vocabulary. Optimization — the better use of data through adjustment of the digital pulleys and levers that adjust what’s offered, at which price points when — has always been a part of the advertising game. Cycle time, and sophistication, though, have markedly moved up. Where the Times used to adjust in 24-month cycles, says Haskell, it now makes significant moves in three-month periods.

There are lots of moving pieces to optimization. The Star Tribune’s chief revenue officer Jeff Griffing describes how his company does it: “The push to premium help us drive our effective yield on pageviews; we’ve established baselines that our different pageviews should meet or exceed and factor in our directly sold campaigns with those indirectly or programmatically filled. We have an optimal formula for how will fill inventory and have set up systems that make sure we’re delivering maximum revenue across all ad units.”

Of course, publishers have long adjusted based on supply and demand. Today, though, the complex external development — various sales partners, through networks, private exchanges and more — requires fine tuning to get the highest possible price for fleeting inventory.

If this all seems like four-dimensional chess, mobile adds a fifth dimension. Haskell recalls the boom in second-screen tablet usage found on election night last November. That development provides a new place for the text-, numbers-, and analysis-driven Times to play in what is usually an immediate TV story. Consequently, it opens up new ways for the Times to exploit the tablet as a second-screen, timely ad vehicle.

The tablet (and mobile, generally) is quickly moving from niche to main play for the Times and others. Of its 43.6 million U.S. unique users in March, 18.3 million arrived via mobile devices, the Times says.

There’s targeting — and then there’s super-targeting. So the Times is selling what Todd Haskell calls “super premium.” It is able to target, through its growing audience database, readers with certain job titles, reading certain sections of content. That kind of targeting drives higher rates, and it’s part of the Times’ plan to move up on the food chain, just as the middle and bottom of that chain widens infinitely.

Creativity

Over the past year, publishers have reawakened to the notion of commercial storytelling. They now see it — a cousin to editorial storytelling — as a core competence, and one that many marketers envy.

“Agencies and many advertisers don’t know how to do it,” says Grimshaw. “There’s a constant need for fresh [marketing] content.”

Enter content marketing, which I recent covered in depth in “The newsonomics of recylcling journalism.” The Star Tribune’s Griffing points to his company’s first big foray into the field, a Kids Health site. Sold to a single sponsor for one year, Children’s Hospital, the new content was produced by Star Tribune staff and is a prototype for products to come. Griffing says the company’s innovations, overall, have pushed year-over-year digital ad growth into the teens.

2013 is the year of content marketing, from New York to D.C. to Minneapolis to Dallas to San Francisco. The creative spark comes from a combination of old-fashioned journalism skills, both editorial and marketing. Sums up Rob Grimshaw: “Publishers have tremendous assets that have never been exploited.”

Now, often, the creation and placement of “native advertising” are inextricably tied. As with the Times’ IdeaLab, the Washington Post’s Brand Connect, and Atlantic Media Strategies, global publishers have asserted their high-end editorial skills, applied to other people’s storytelling, and are packaging that skill with an ad buy. Haskell points out that the creative costs can be built into the ad buy itself, if the buy is big enough. “We’re not looking to make money on the creative,” he says.

That combination of the creative and the buy shows the newness of it all, and the early flux in the content marketing craft. Over time, we’ll likely see a greater cross-title placement of above-average creative, saving on creation costs. How then will the various content marketing works of a Times, an FT, a BuzzFeed, or an Atlantic Media compare? Which will become go-to creative companies, and which will return to the old comfort area of selling placement?

Video creation has also unearthed new creativity among the formerly ink-based wretches. In fact, most companies tell me that video ad demand, at anywhere from $25 to $75 cost per thousand rates (many multiples beyond display ads), is still outstripping supply.

The Star Tribune’s Griffing puts it this way: “This one is simple. We are selling as much video inventory as we have; 1.2 million plays per month, which is significantly more than the next closest competitor, a local TV station. That said, until we’re doing 10M plays a month, revenue for video will be relatively small.”

In a nutshell, that describes the dilemma. The New York Times recently hired Rebecca Howard, late of AOL/HuffPo, to expand its sold-out video inventory.

For Digital First Media, a pioneer in local news video through the Journal Register Company, new video formats offer premium possibilities. It’s going short, and long. “For short format we just closed a deal with Tout.com, and we are deploying their player in all our sites.” DFM journalists will take videos, through Tout (“The newsonomics of leapfrog news video”) and place them quickly on the sites, says Digital First’s Arturo Duran. “Some of those ‘Touts’ are embedded inside the articles. This is following what the consumers are doing, and the tests by WSJ and BBC. They have created snippets of 15 seconds of information that feed their sites with real time information on events. For end users, it’s a faster, easier way to watch it. There is a big play in the mobile arena, specially smartphones, as end users are watching more video in this [short] format than any other.”

Longer-format video is still in the planning stages for DFM, says Duran, pointing to the potential of live events, interviews with personalities, direct chats with readers, and more. It’s noteworthy that despite the success of video advertising, text-based sites still haven’t mastered greater quality production of greater scale and aren’t well-using third-party, “higher quality” video to satisfy ad needs.

Sales relationships

In an age of self-service, spawned by Google’s paid search products, the sales channel is still multi-tiered. Self-service works profoundly for some products, but telesales and in-person, feet-on-the-ground sales forces are finding new life.

Blame complexity. The choices advertisers now have are endless. Top-tier advertisers are served by such specialized teams as the FT’s “strategic sales” unit. The group works matches the complexity of FT’s analytics-fueled approaches to marketing with advertiser needs.

At the other end of the spectrum, the burgeoning marketing services business (“The newsonomics of selling Main Street”) is bringing these new approaches to smaller, local businesses. The Star Tribune’s Jeff Grilling, a major proponent of the marketing services business, has already learned some lessons from his company’s Radius marketing services foray.

“I’m finding more similarities than less, to our traditional sales approach. I’m finding that we are only as good as our sales people and the relationship they create, and that many small business customers have been approached by some sort of digital solutions vendor in the last few years. Make no mistake, there is no easy money in the SMB digital solutions business — it is very competitive and customers have are typically skeptical because of weak solutions they’ve experienced by other vendors in previous years. So if it’s a quick and easy revenue stream that a media company is looking for, I would look at options other than SMB digital solutions. I do still believe, however, that if your intention is to genuinely help local businesses grow, and you have the stomach for investment, strategy, execution, and patience, SMB digital solutions can be a viable product line.”

That tells you how long a haul this digital transition remains, and how many twists and turns even the innovators must endure.

Photo by NJR ZA used under a Creative Commons license.

May 20 2010

14:00

The Newsonomics of content at the margins

[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.]

Yahoo’s purchase of Associated Content, for over $100 million, seemed to come out of the blue. Actually, though, it didn’t. Yahoo made a foray at buying Demand Media two years ago, but the parties couldn’t come to terms. At that point, Demand’s model seemed to make sense, but hadn’t matured to a point of conventional-wisdom validation.

We’re now at that point: The well-dissected, advertising-drives-content Demand model is at the center of Demand Media, AOL’s Seed, Examiner.com and Associated Content. The Newsonomics of content arbitrage that I wrote about for the Lab a month ago is a certified phenomenon; the conventional wisdom is that these algorithm-driven, user-gen-aggregated, SEO-augmented, metrics-monitored businesses are at the center of a new way to produce “content.” Not news, mind you, but newsy content, some of it wonderfully useful, some of it wince-worthy. News content is far too costly to produce, doesn’t produce enough of a long-tail and doesn’t link that easily to commerce — the buying of stuff that fuels advertising.

The newsy stuff, though, is an annuity. That’s an interesting term, used by Associated Content CEO Patrick Keane, when I interviewed him a couple of weeks ago. An annuity. That’s a business made from the long tail. Pay for something once — and not much; in the case of Associated Content, $5 to $30 per piece — and monetize it forever. That’s why the evergreen content encouraged by the Associateds and Demands runs to “How to Teach Your Dog Sign Language,” and “10 Surefire Tips on Selling Your House at a Competitive Price.

It’s content written for search engine optimization (good piece on SEO ascendancy Monday by the Times’ David Carr). It’s also, to put it simply and directly, ad bait. Ad bait of the kind that newspaper ad directors could only dream about over the decades, the kind they gained with advertorial sections (wedding guides, personal finance sections) as journalists — can you imagine! — wrote stories about what they thought was newsworthy. The hubris — and sometimes, good news judgment.

It’s those algorithms and deepening technology under content, under advertising and under the matching of the two, that drives this Yahoo/Associated Content deal. Over the last several years, Yahoo has built an advertising targeting platform on acquisitions (Right Media, BlueLithium) and its own development, leaving the paid search business to Google and Microsoft. That platform is all about matching up content, web users, and advertising messaging. Yahoo has fine-tuned it, though it’s always a work in progress. It’s brought in partners (including half of U.S. newspaper companies) to gain more inventory and identified its future along those user/content/advertising lines.

The next step: Gain lots more content to sell ads against. Yahoo can do that several ways: organic growth; more partnerships; bringing more content under its own brands, on its own site. The Associated Content buy meets that third goal. The $100 million purchase price buys the annuity, lots of ad-bait content to feed the ever-smarter ad engine.

Here’s the best part: margins. When I asked Patrick Keane, who will apparently be joining Yahoo as part of the deal, how much of Associated’s revenue derived from selling ads on its own site and how much from partner sites to which it licensed the cheap user-gen content it aggregated, he didn’t want to talk percentages. He did acknowledge that more than half, though, came from the Associated site. And Keane liked it that way. Why? “The margins are a lot better,” he told me.

That’s a simple statement, but one driving much of the new digital business. Revenue and profit growth are going to get tougher for such big companies as Yahoo and Google, and it’s a big challenge for the new independent AOL. One way to boost dollars is to boost margins. That means transacting more business on your own site — where you don’t have to share revenues with other sites, other content owners.

I’ve tracked Google’s progression along those lines. Go back to 2004. Then, Google reported that 49 percent of its revenues were coming from affiliate sites, as it offered its technologies to help affiliates make a few bucks. That was the high-water mark of affiliate earnings, by percentage. In 2009, the affiliate percentage was down to 30 percent; 66 percent of revenues come from Google’s own sites. Over time, it has smartly directed more and more traffic to stay at its owned websites — its time-on-site has increased consistently — and monetized that traffic, without having to share revenues. In part, that’s contributed to its amazing profit growth, a banner $6.5 billion in profit, up $2 billion year-over-year, in the terrible-for-everyone-else 2009.

Yahoo breaks down its revenue into “owned and operated” sites and “affiliate” sites, though its trend lines are less easy to see. Clearly, though, the push toward O&O revenue is a key one, and one that the Associated purchase reinforces.

What might that push mean for Yahoo’s affiliates, especially those in the Newspaper Consortium, which have gladly used Yahoo ad technology to better their ad rates in selected topical areas? It’s hard to see how it is good news. The Associated content aims at many of same topical categories that newspaper sites target; so the industry looks like it has gained new competition — competition owned by its partner.

Maybe more significantly, Associated is welcomed on the Yahoo site by Matt Ledma, Yahoo VP for local. “We feel that a contributor-driven model is absolutely part of the future of media,” Idema told Reuters. User-gen content can be topical — travel, health, pets, you name it — and it can be local. Local user-gen is the territory voraciously being chased by Examiner.com. Looks like Examiner may have a new competitor in the pro/am, user-gen local space: Yahoo.

These — Yahoo, Associated, Examiner, Demand — are the companies showing aggressiveness today, leaving one question for the moment: Where are the legacy news-producing companies, those who have long created the features-like content in this picture — and why haven’t they bought these startups or built similar models?

March 25 2010

16:00

The Newsonomics of online ad spending, and its costs

[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.]

It’s a complaint we’ve long heard in the newspaper industry: It’s the 25-year-old media buyers who are driving the business into wrack and ruin. If they only understood the world wasn’t just made up of people just like them — the wired, the mobile, the people whose parents read newspapers — advertising spending would be more rational.

Much of that talk, of course, is sour grapes, the inevitably griping we hear when change is in the air, when disruption messes with our views of the way the world should be, with our careers, with our paychecks.

We’ve also heard, mainly in the past year or so, that news companies just don’t think there’s much ad money on the web. Rupert Murdoch and Arthur Sulzberger have been vocal about the need to get greater revenues from readers, given what they’ve said is an historic change in ad revenues. That philosophy has fueled much of the push to find paid content models that work and work big.

Let’s look at some of the data about ad spend, and at least one innovation that may impact revenue allocations in the next several years.

First, and maybe most importantly, usage of digital media — in time — far outweighs, in proportion, the ad dollars spent on it. From a recent JP Morgan report, we see the estimate that adults are spending 29 percent of their time on the web, but advertisers are only putting 8 percent of their ad spend on the web. Meanwhile, newspapers only get 8 percent of our attention, but 20 percent of the ad dollars. That’s a big, continuing disparity. We wouldn’t expcct a one-to-one relationship between time and dollars spent — too many mitigating factors — but given the trajectory of online usage, we’d expect less disparity over time.

In 2009, most reports put the total of online advertising spending in the U.S. at about $23 billion. The Newspaper Association of America (NAA) puts daily newspaper online revenue at about $3.5 billion. That’s 15 percent of the total, a number that I think is a bit high, given the bundling and difficulty of separating out print from digital buys. Even at 15 percent, though, it’s less than the historic 20 percent of the national ad spend that newspapers — in print — long took out of the market. $3.5 billion (or even $4.6 billion, had the industry maintained its print percentage) isn’t a big number — and it’s peanuts compared to print revenues lost over the last couple of years.

Yet, the $23 billion number is a big one, and the fastest growing in advertising overall. Significantly, the top 10 websites take in 72 percent of that revenue, a share three percentage points greater than a year earlier, according to Interactive Advertising Bureau. The concentration in spending on bigger properties has accelerated.

So the spoils of the new medium have gone to a relative few, most of them content aggregators, as Yahoo, Google, AOL, and MSN top these revenue charts. The New York Times is represented, but most local newspaper companies and sites fare relatively poorly. It’s not just dimes of Internet revenue to dollars of print revenue; it’s trickle-down ad spend.

Why? One key reason is scale. It’s simply easier to buy the big sites than smaller ones. That’s especially true when we consider how new and how immature the digital ad spending landscape is.

That 25-year-old buyer may now be reaching the terrifying age of 30, but she or he isn’t the problem. The problem is at least, in part, structural. The American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA) has estimated that it costs twice as much to manage the placement of digital ads as compared to print and broadcast.

“If traditional services are assumed to require staffing and fees that imply an effective commission rate in the range of 12%–15% (with media planning and buying services assumed to be 1/3 of the total), Digital can typically require resources equating to an effective commission rate ranging from 25%–30% (with media planning and buying services assumed to be 1/2 of the total),” says the 2009 report.

So, the 30-year-old media buyer finds herself in a system that’s overburdened. TMI, too much information flowing in, too little time to absorb and make sense of it and not enough staff to work it. One result: More money spent on bigger ad buys, which, of course, take less time to place.

Against this backdrop, we see the value of Yahoo’s Newspaper Consortium, streamlining the buying process for all those newspaper properties. That’s boosted online revenue by the tens of millions.

Now Centro, one of the news industry’s top suppliers of digital advertising (about $100 million in ad business moved through Centro to media overall in 2009) is demoing a streamlining product. It is called Transis, and it was unveiled at AAAA’s early March conference. The product’s ambitious goal: “Transis automates the entire digital media buying process from planning through billing and centralizes all related communication. It aims to bring the diverse tasks of ad placement — from building media plans, handling RFPs and insertion orders, billing and reconciliation — into a single console for ad agencies. The intent: more ad volume for Centro and the 2,000 or so websites on which it places ads.

Ten digital agencies are now testing Transis, a trial that could last six months. So, if Transis has an impact on the revenues of non-Top 10 websites — the broad swath of local websites that Centro President Shawn Riegsecker calls “B” placement sites — it will be in 2011. Of course, Transis, or something like it, would have to become a standard to drive a major change in ad revenue buys and splits. Its principle, though, is one to watch, and one that could be more ad dollars going to smaller sites.

Further, it’s another indication that the digital industry’s out-of-the-chutes growth is based on many first-generation practices and habits. As it emerges out of gawky adolescence and matures, new technologies may have the capacity of changing how we think of business models and business potentials, and how new journalism will be funded.

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.

Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
Could not load more posts
Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
Just a second, loading more posts...
You've reached the end.

Don't be the product, buy the product!

Schweinderl