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April 24, 2014

The Newsonomics of the Dead Cat Bounce

First published at Nieman Journalism Lab

The season’s upon us, as newspaper and media companies announce their second-quarter earnings. At least some of the companies will announce: fewer than used to a couple of years ago, as Tribune has gone private (and banko), metros like Philly and Minneapolis have moved to private hands, MediaNews releases less information than it used to, and Dow Jones’ results are less decipherable, aggregated within News Corp. news division results.

Still, Gannett — the largest U.S. newspaper company — leads off Friday. The New York Times Co. follows on July 22. McClatchy comes in on July 29. We’ll also hear from A.H. Belo, Scripps, Lee, and Media General, dates TBA.

Let’s get ahead of it a bit and see what we can look for in the announcements and what that will mean for the news industry. Let’s look at a newsonomics primer of this struggling industry as the rest of the economy haphazardly improves around it.

I could call this post “The Newsonomics of newspaper quarterly earnings reports,” but much better is the story of the moment: How much will newspaper companies tout — and how will the reduced-but-remaining corps of those who cover the industry report — how positive their dead cat bounce is. “Dead cat bounce” is a phrase you hear — confidentially — from some newspaper executives. It’s an old Wall Street term, observing that even long-declining stocks will bounce a bit sometimes.

Let’s recall that last year’s ad revenue results had all the spring of a dead cat — down some $10 billion and 27 percent. So take a dead cat and pump a little life in it, with things less worse than they were in the disastrous 2009 and you get a bit of a bounce — but not one to crow about. Unless, that is, you don’t have much else to crow about, and that’s that’s the predicament, circa mid-2010, of most newspaper companies. They don’t have a big, positive story to talk about.

So, consider this a parsing guide to what we’ll hear in the next month:

  • How much was the second quarter down from 2Q 2009? First-quarter numbers were down largely in single digits, and that seemed a relief after comparable double-digit declines. We heard such CEO parsing as “improvement in comparables” and hopefully spun statements such as “Domestic classified advertising was just seven percent lower than March a year ago.” The problem: The rest of the economy, and even the TV and online ad economies, are all showing real growth — and taking market share from newspapers. Newspapers’ continuing inability to find real arithmetic growth doubles down on the theory that these revenue changes are more structural than cyclical — and that the Great Recession may have accelerated newspapers’ downward fortunes. Are there any positive growth numbers to report? Which categories may be turning positive — maybe national or retail display ads — as the sagging economy continues to plague the traditional classified strengths of auto, recruitment, and real estate?
  • How much will the prepared remarks focus on cost or debt reduction and how much on revenue growth? Play Earnings Bingo and count the comments involving “debt reduction” or “cost restructuring” as compared to “growth.”
  • How much of revenue is now coming from digital, and what’s the digital growth rate? Most newspaper companies increased their percentage of overall revenue attributed to digital to the 12-15 percent range in 2009 — but that was largely because print revenues dropped so precipitously. The news industry is becoming more digitally oriented, but still has a long way to go. Still, it’s a useful percentage to know; few companies report it routinely, but often mention it in Q&A. Most importantly, is the digital business growing, and at what rate, after being just north or south of flat in Q1? Such growth is key to these companies’ future.
  • How much of that digital revenue is coming from digital-only sales? McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt was the first to make a point of digital-only sales, as it approached half of total digital revenue. Pruitt’s right; it’s an important barometer of where the business is going, not where it’s been. Since the mid-’90s, the industry has been overly reliant on “bundled” ad packages of print/online. Now as the digital marketing revolution matures, a number of companies — often spurred by the Yahoo Newspaper Consortium — are really pushing online-only packages.
  • How much revenue is coming from emerging marketing services business initiatives? Tribune and Gannett are among the leaders at selling website building, search engine optimization services, and more to small and medium-sized businesses. Will we hear about this big new push — and how many dollars it is starting to drive?
  • Is there any circulation revenue growth? Circulation numbers have continued to plummet, while newspaper companies have priced up substantially. The overall notion: Get long-standing, habituated print subscribers to pay more of the freight. For The New York Times, the strategy has worked and circulation revenue has continued to grow (up 11 percent in Q1). For other companies, Gannett (circ revenue down 5 percent) and Lee (down 4 percent), the math isn’t working as well. Pricing up and losing both revenue and circulation numbers that are the lifeblood of selling advertising is not the outcome desired. So watch circulation revenue numbers in the reports. If they’re still negative, that’d be an indication that newspapers’ circulation pricing power is waning.
  • Do we hear any strategies discussed for the second half of 2010 or into 2011? Any iPad/tablet plans or development? The discussions surrounding the earnings calls can focus just on numbers, sometimes arcanely so, or get into actual strategies that may lead from the tepid now to a better tomorrow. How much strategy do these companies have and/or are willing to share with investors?

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