The great newspaper liquidation
In his 2004 book The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age, Philip Meyer imagined “the final stages” of a “squeeze scenario” by a newspaper owner who wanted to exit the business but didn’t want to actually sell the title: He would start charging more for his newspaper and delivering less, commencing the “slow liquidation” of his property. This slow liquidation would not be immediately apparent to observers, Meyer wrote, because the asset “being converted to cash” would be “goodwill” – the newspaper’s standing in the community and the habit of advertisers and subscribers of giving it money.
One reason an owner would want to extract a newspaper’s goodwill value before selling its physical assets – its real estate, presses, computers, trucks, paper, ink, etc. – is that traditionally, goodwill is where most of a newspaper’s value has resided. When Meyer asked two newspaper appraisers to estimate how much of a newspaper’s value was locked up in goodwill versus physical assets, both gave him the same answer: 80 percent goodwill, 20 percent physical assets.
Selling goodwill is a dangerous strategy because once sold, it’s difficult to reacquire. But a newspaper owner who feels trapped by losses and can’t find a new owner at what he considers a fair price may feel he has no alternative but to cheapen his newspaper bit-by-bit, month-by-month. He may explain the goodwill sell-off as temporary economizing to be reversed once business conditions improve, or even as the exploration of a new business model. Sellers of newspaper goodwill might protest that the financial losses they’re absorbing constitute a serious investment in the newspaper’s future, that they’re harvesting nothing. But don’t be fooled. If you’re winding your company down with no strategy to wind it up, you’re burning goodwill even if you don’t acknowledge it.
It’s hard to blame newspaper owners for winding their print operations down, even if you devour four dailies a day, which I do. All of the industry’s vital signs are pointing south. Profit margins are way down, its stock prices have collapsed, daily circulation has fallen about 30 percent over the last 20 years, the percentage of adults regularly reading newspapers has been falling steadily since 1999 (especially among younger adults), and advertising revenue, which stood at $50 billion in real terms in 1984, fell to $23.9 billion in 2011. The corresponding decline in newspaper valuation is illustrated by three recent sales of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. In 2006, the papers went for $515 million. In 2010, they commanded $139 million. Just two months ago they sold for $55 million.
Of course newspaper owners aren’t the only heavies in the story. “The owner didn’t decide to shrink the paper,” said Detroit News reporter Charlie LeDuff in 2008 as the Detroit papers decreased home delivery from seven days to three. “The reader decided to shrink the paper.”
Other salient financial data points: Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. bought the parent company of the Wall Street Journal for $5.6 billion in 2007, but wrote down $2.8 billion of that in 2009, essentially admitting that its value had halved in two years. The New York Times Co, once worth $7 billion, is now valued at less than $1 billion.
If you were a newspaper owner, you’d be liquidating and harvesting, too, and with the exception of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, that’s what most owners appear to be doing. Last week, Newhouse Newspapers* announced it was going to reduce the number of days it prints its New Orleans Times-Picayune and its Alabama titles from seven days to three days a week. This follows similar cutbacks in printing by Newhouse’s Michigan papers announced in 2011 and by the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News in 2009.
Almost everywhere you look across the newspaper landscape, page count is down. Coverage areas have contracted, and newsroom staffs have shrunk dramatically. Over the past decade, newspapers have deleted features readers long took for granted, such as reporting from their own foreign, Washington and state bureaus. Last month, the Los Angeles Times folded its Sunday magazine, further winnowing the number of newspapers publishing a Sunday glossy. Newspapers have dumped free-standing book review sections, abandoned late-breaking news to websites, given up on providing comprehensive stock listings, winnowed comics pages, cut editorial cartoonists from their staff, and reduced the number of community listings and announcements.
In exchange for less and less, owners are charging readers more and more. The Chicago Tribune recently doubled and tripled some readers’ subscription rates. The New York Times boosted home-delivery rates in January. And in DC, readers gave the Washington Post ombudsman hell in January after the paper pushed through a stealth price increase for single-copy sales from 75 cents to $1, providing its customers no announcement or publisher’s note about the increase in the paper or online. Publishers can rightly claim that falling display and classified revenues give them no other choice but to make readers pay more. But that doesn’t erase the fact that most readers are paying more for less now, one of the hallmarks of liquidation.
Everybody blames the Internet for the decline of newspapers, but the Web is only the most recent of electric interruptions to have disturbed their profitability, which began with radio in the late 1920s and was followed by broadcast television, car radios, transistor radios, FM radio, and cable television. Newspapers were in so much advertising trouble in September 1941 that Time magazine ran a piece (paid) about their “downward economic spiral.” Press scholar David R. Davies argues in his 2006 book The Postwar Decline of American Newspapers, 1945-1965 that daily newspapers were in serious trouble by the mid-1960s, because, among other things, they had failed to hook the baby boom generation. Los Angeles Times press reporter David Shaw sounded the alarm in a 1976 piece in his newspaper. It began: “Are you now holding an endangered species in your hands?” Update the figures and change a few dates and the names of the principals in Shaw’s piece and you could almost pass it off as a 2012 diagnosis of newspaper industry ills.
Newspaper owners may be running out of time to beat the liquidation clock if the prediction (pdf) made in January by the USC Annenberg Center for the Digital Future proves accurate. Because the current generation of print newspaper readers aren’t being replaced, most major U.S. print dailies will be dead in five years, the report concluded. Very small newspapers might endure as dailies, as well as the large national newspapers – the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today – and the local Washington Post. For other newspapers to beat the reaper, said the Annenberg report, they must downsize from daily to once- or twice-a-week publication.
One tycoon who nosed the smell of death about newspapers early was Warren Buffett, penning a letter to his Berkshire Hathaway investors in 1992 saying that newspapers were over as a lucrative, “franchise” business. He didn’t blame the Web for the decline of newspapers in part because he couldn’t. The Web did not yet exist as a business. Other media properties, including television and magazines, had diminished the newspaper, he said. Buffett basically swore off acquiring any newspaper properties beyond his Buffalo News and his investment in the Washington Post Co until last month, when he purchased most of Media General’s newspapers.
The Buffett purchase doesn’t necessarily nullify the curse of liquidation. He told the Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz he has no interest in bidding on the Los Angeles Times or Chicago Tribune and any other Tribune Co newspapers when the company exits bankruptcy. Nearly all of the Media General titles he bought are published in small towns, which Annenberg predicted will survive, so he has that going for him. He also indicated that weekly or thrice-weekly production isn’t in the cards for his dailies, nor is “shrink[ing] the news hole.”
Philip Meyer volunteers some optimism about the Buffett purchase.
“Somewhere on the downhill slope there might be a viable and stable [newspaper] business, and that is what Buffett is counting on,” he said in an interview. “Maybe the Internet has done all the damage it can. I sure hope he’s right. He does understand that community influence is a paper’s most important product, and I think he will invest in it.”
Even if Meyer is right, which I hope he is, it still won’t be a happy ending to a century (and then some) of newspaper glory. The papers that escape liquidation will still be watered down.
*CORRECTION: This article originally stated that Newhouse had reduced the frequency of publication of several of its papers in the South. Newhouse announced the reduction, which will take effect in the fall. The article has been changed to incorporate the correction.
We’re always liquid here at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. For a solid feed, see my Twitter account. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.
PHOTO: Newly printed Detroit News newspapers run through the presses at the paper’s printing plant in Sterling Heights, Michigan, December 16, 2008. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook