Nick Hornby, on writing. Thanks, PBS, for the non-embeddable clip. Skip to 5:30 to get the the good bits.
I’ve been passing around an odd little YouTube clip of a 2005 Christmas gift from Sam Zell. It shows an animated statue that features a recording of Sam extolling the virtures of an economy that’s throwing off cheap cash left and right, And then, there’s a song:
“We’re awash with cash to spend!”
It would just be that – an oddity – until you read a piece in the New York Times which notes that the newspaper industry over the past few years followed the same bubble of cheap money that drove the housing bubble.
And, like all bubbles, eventually it pops:
The bankruptcy filing of the Tribune Company on Monday is just the latest, largest evidence that the American newspaper industry is suffering the hangover from an immense buying spree in 2006 and 2007 at what turned out to be the worst possible time for the buyers, just as the business was about to enter a drastic decline.
Newspapers would be in trouble either way. The steady leak of advertising and readers from print to the Web has become a widening torrent in this recession year. Most newspapers remain profitable, but the margins are dropping fast, with the industry losing about 15 percent of its ad revenue this year.
But the companies in the weakest condition are there largely because they borrowed a lot of money to buy papers, often at inflated prices, and the biggest of those deals were struck in 2006 and early 2007.
The full story is here.
Martin Langeveld reports on a conference focused on the notion of an “InfoValet.” It sounds like attendees at the conference spent a lot of time thinking of ways to describe what they’re onto, but I’d put it this way, from a consumer perspective:
A universal logon system whereby users “pay” for access to information with (secure) information about themselves, rather than with dollars.
Langeveld says, “While a system like this will not necessarily save newspaper publishers (because, for one thing, it will take some time to gain traction), it has the potential to help save journalism by enabling online news publishing at a different scale. While the New York Times could be an InfoValet network member, so can a blogger or micro-local news site, and each can benefit proportionately to their traffic and content value to advertisers and consumers.”
Interesting idea, though any attempt to build a new ecosystem from scratch is going to meet with a certain amount of stubborn resistance. Perhaps the recent announcements by Google and Facebook, opening their logon systems to other sites, might provide some readymade structure for the InfoValet idea.
It was just shy of one year ago today when Mark Potts swam against the Zellebratory news of the sale of Tribune, in a post entitled “Here Come The Death Eaters,” in which he typed these words:
Put that all together, and 2008 may be the year that the Death Eaters start coming for some of the biggest names in the business: Big chains or papers that are overextended financially and find themselves undermined by the gathering storm of problems. Wall Street and bankers aren’t going to put up with that, and executive heads—not to mention those of a lot of unfortunate rank and file employees—will roll. Watch for still more consolidation and, um, innovative financing that will further roil the industry.
Just look at the tumult that accompanied Sam Zell’s closing of his deal to buy Tribune Co. this week. The bankers were squeezing the deal right up to the last minute. Even Zell called it “the transaction from hell.” And Zell’s going to have to pedal—and peddle—as fast as he can to keep the company afloat financially. It’s not just the Chicago Cubs that are going to be sold by Tribune. Look for a fire sale of real estate and newspapers (Los Angeles Times, anyone? Anyone?) as Zell strips the company for cash. And at this holiday time, say a prayer for the poor Tribune employees, who could be left holding the bag—through their retirement plan, which now owns the company through Zell’s creative accounting—if things turn sour. Memo to Tribune employees: Get. The. Hell. Out.
Both the Wall Street Journal and New York Times are reporting tonight that the Tribune company has hired an investment bank and a law firm for a potential bankruptcy filing as early as this week. This is definitely a long way down the road from a year ago when the arrival of Sam Zell was seen as a bold move toward the reinvention of a once-great newspaper brand.
Here’s the New York Times take:
Tribune has hired bankruptcy advisers as the ailing newspaper company seeks to stave off a potential bankruptcy filing, people briefed on the matter said.
The newspaper, which was taken private last year by billionaire investor Samuel Zell, has hired the investment bank Lazard and the law firm Sidley Austin, these people said. Tribune has been hobbled by debt related to that sale last year, which has been compounded by the growing drought of advertising for newspapers.
The Wall Street Journal puts the Tribune distress in perspective:
The appointments underscore the deepening distress for Tribune and other publishers. Newspaper businesses are being battered by dwindling advertising sales and carrying debt loads that are unmanageable in current market conditions. People in the industry expect some papers will need to seek bankruptcy protection or fold in coming months.
Tribune has been on wobbly footing since last December, when real-estate mogul Sam Zell led a debt-backed deal to take the company private. Tribune so far has stayed ahead of its $12 billion in borrowings with the help of asset sales, but now dwindling profits are tightening the noose. The company’s cash flow may not be enough to cover nearly $1 billion in interest payments this year, and Tribune owes a $512 million debt payment in June.
Based on the state of declining revenues at the company and its lenders’ likely unwillingness to allow Tribune to simply sell off assets to make its payments (as it did with the sale of Newsday in 2008), bankruptcy looks increasingly inevitable. These actions seem to imply that the question may be called sooner than the mid-2009 period I had seen mentioned previously.
I keep coming back to this: if the people, through their behavior, keep telling newspapers that they don’t want the paper part of the paper anymore AND the paper part of the paper is enormously expensive to create and distribute, then why doesn’t some market take a leap and try going all digital?
Yes, there will be financial downsides at first, but especially in the many markets with only one daily newspaper, this risk may be minimized by the fact that local and national advertisers still need to reach that market, and the audience that newspaper organizations gather remains uniquely strong when measured against other mass media television and radio.
Martin Langeveld, former newspaper publisher and VP and current hive-whacking mediablogger, recently took a look at the numbers behind such a leap. The short version: newspapers won’t get rich in the short term, but they just might survive.
This week, Langeveld digs deeper into what it would take for one market to make the leap, and introduces us to a publisher in Cedar Rapids (who will be familiar to readers of this blog) who just may be laying the groundwork for his own leap forward.
The strategy sounds simple: Transform the business from its manufacturing roots into a digital enterprise. I proposed a version of it in my second-ever post, back in September: “To have even a chance of survival, the mindset of the industry needs to become: We are in the business of publishing information content continuously on our web sites; every 24 hours (for now, and this may ultimately change to once or twice weekly) we gather some of that information into a printed product and distribute it, but our business is focused on and driven by our online operations.” And I’ve explained it again more recently when I explored the economics of a daily that morphs into a web-first weekly or twice-weekly, and previously as part of my Six Theses, and elsewhere. I’m not alone on this. “Digital is first” is at the top of Steve Outing’s list of suggestions for the industry as well; others have hammered away at it; it should simply be on everyone’s list…
Can any of this be even discussed in an organization demoralized by waves of layoffs and cutbacks? It won’t be easy, obviously, but it has to be done. A newspaper organization that chooses not to adopt, embrace and fully implement a strategy of becoming a digital enterprise will remain a manufacturing enterprise with a product that fewer people want or need, every day. Perhaps it will be remembered one day by a nice brass plaque on the historic printing plant.
Langeveld doesn’t yet get the attention of some of the usual suspects (Jarvis, Yelvington, Mutter, Potts, Rosen – all big thinkers worthy of your feed reader), but he should. He combines an insider’s experience with a sharp, analytical mind, and adds a willingness to consider the radical notion that there may yet be a future in the news business.
Yesterday, Alan Mutter promised a detailing of just what newspapers might do when things turn really sour in Q1 of 2009. Today, he delivers. But the list – at least at the beginning - sounds awfully familiar already:
The list of potential expense reductions includes squeezing staffing, shuttering bureaus, carving out layers of middle management, telescoping multiple sections of the paper into one, tightening newshole, scrapping syndicated features and wire serevices, axing op-ed pages and book sections and eliminating classified ads on certain days of the week….
Another alternative will be to ask employees to accept voluntary pay cuts, to agree to work longer hours, and to ease manning requirements and other work rules. Bonuses may be reduced or eliminated for the fortunate few who still would have qualified for them.
He then walks through the increasingly extreme cuts papers could and, in many cases, will make, ending with this cheery thought:
This will last as long as the newspapers continue to generate operating profits. But it is highly unlikely in this environment that any creditor would provide additional cash to prop up a money-losing newspaper.
In other words, a newspaper that cannot sell enough advertising or cut enough expenses to sustain profitable operations is not likley to make it to the other side of 2009.
Is it time for a newspaper dead pool?