BBJ scores big on two local media stories

The Boston Business Journal has come up aces during the past week with two meaty stories on local media news.

• A shaky future at the Globe. The first, published last Friday, found that confidential financial documents put together by the New York Times Co. suggest The Boston Globe was in slightly worse shape than outside observers might have imagined when the paper and several affiliated properties were sold to Red Sox principal owner John Henry for $70 million in early August. The BBJ’s Craig Douglas writes (sub. req.):

In essence, Henry is buying into a borderline breakeven enterprise already teed up for $35 million in cost cuts over a two-year period before he even walks through the door.

How bad is it? According to the documents cited by Douglas, advertising revenue at the New England Media Group (NEMG) — mainly the Globe, the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester and Boston.com — is expected to be 31 percent below the 2009 level next year. And paid print circulation revenue continues to slip despite price increases at the Globe and the T&G.

You may have heard people say at the time of the sale that Boston.com was worth more than the Globe itself. Well, I don’t think you’ve heard me say it. Print advertising remains far more valuable than online, and that holds true at NEMG as well. Douglas writes:

The Globe is by far the biggest revenue generator of the group, accounting for 69 percent, or about $255 million, of its forecasted revenue this year. The Telegram & Gazette in Worcester is next in line at $42.5 million in forecasted revenue this year, while Boston.com is on track to book about $40 million.

Print products account for about 88 percent of NEMG’s total annual revenue. That heavy reliance on print-related advertising and circulation revenue has proven particularly problematic of late, as both categories have lost ground since 2009 and are forecasted to see continued deterioration for the foreseeable future.

Douglas’ story is protected behind a paywall, but if you can find a print edition, you should. Suffice it to say that John Henry has his work cut out for him. The picture Douglas paints is not catastrophic. But it does show that the Globe is not quite as far along the road toward figuring out the digital future as some of us might have hoped.

• Tough times ahead for local papers. The other big media splash, which I linked to last night, is Jon Chesto’s analysis of the sale of Rupert Murdoch’s Dow Jones Local Newspaper Group (formerly Ottaway Newspapers) to an investment firm affiliated with GateHouse Media. The papers sold include three prominent Greater Boston dailies: The Standard-Times of New Bedford, the Cape Cod Times and the Portsmouth Herald, on the New Hampshire seacoast.

Chesto’s article is part of the BBJ’s free offerings, so by all means read the whole thing. It’s a real eye-opener, as he explains as best anyone can at this early stage what the sale and simultaneous bankruptcy of GateHouse will mean for local papers and the communities they serve. Unfortunately, indications are the news will be very bad indeed.

Fairport, N.Y.-based GateHouse, which publishes about 100 local papers in Eastern Massachusetts (including The Patriot Ledger of Quincy, The Enterprise of Brockton and The MetroWest Daily News of Framingham), will somehow be combined with the entity that holds the former Ottaway papers into a new company with the uninspired name of New Media (that may change). (Update: Chesto is a former business editor of The Patriot Ledger, which no doubt helped him write his piece with a real air of authority. And thanks to Roy Harris for reminding me of that.)

The deal with Murdoch — at $82 million, quite a bit more than I had anticipated — was done through Newcastle Investment Corp., a real estate investment trust that is part of Fortress Investment Group, which in turn is GateHouse’s principal backer.

The powers-that-be are already talking about slashing the Ottaway papers, which are among the best local dailies in the region. Chesto writes:

The papers are described as “under-managed by News Corp.” with “expense reductions of only 6% since 2010.” Translation: We can take more out of the expenses than News Corp. did. GateHouse has been an aggressive cost cutter in recent years, most notably with efforts to consolidate most of its page design and layout functions. That work was centralized in two locations, including an office in Framingham. But it will soon be downsized further, into one location in Austin, Texas.

Yes, Murdoch, the “genocidal tyrant,” is likely to prove a better steward of local journalism than the people he’s selling to.

Post-bankruptcy, with $1.2 billion in debt off their backs, the executives now running GateHouse are going to be empowered. According to a presentation put together for investors, Chesto writes, New Media may spend $1 billion to buy up local media companies over the next three years.

Chesto doesn’t say so, but if I were working for the Eagle-Tribune papers north of Boston (The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, The Daily News of Newburyport, The Salem News and the Gloucester Daily Times), I’d be polishing that résumé right now. On the other hand, those papers have already been cut so much under the Alabama-based CNHI chain that it’s not like a new owner could do a whole lot worse.

At a time when there are reasons to be hopeful about the newspaper business thanks to the interest of people like John Henry, Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett, the GateHouse deal shows that there are still plenty of reasons to be worried about the future.

8 thoughts on “BBJ scores big on two local media stories

  1. Matt Kelly

    >>Post-bankruptcy, with $1.2 billion in debt off their backs, the executives now running GateHouse are going to be empowered… New Media may spend $1 billion to buy up local media companies over the next three years.

    As my mechanic likes to say, ‘See, that’s your problem right there.’ They might want to try turning a profit at what they have, before going on yet another buying spree, which I’m sure will sooner or later require more debt like they just discharged in bankruptcy. People playing with numbers on spreadsheets, that’s all they are.

  2. Patricia Bennett

    Dan, I am a 35 year subscriber to the Globe (7 days/week) and it is getting to the point I am seriously thinking of dropping the subscription. I am not a journalist, just a consumer and have found the Globe has slipped since McGrory took over the editor slot. Not sure if it’s McGrorys influence or just timing. To be honest I miss his columns, a great writer. Also Boston.com has become somewhat of a joke. Hate the layout and if I have to look at the Brady family eating breakfast or some other stupid article about them, I’ll scream. The content on Boston.com is pure fluff and maybe that was what was intended? All I know is days go by and I don’t visit Boston.com and I don’t miss it. Of course I am of a “certain age” and maybe it is not targeted to my age group. I am saddened by all this since I was and still want to be a Globe customer and wonder what happened. I just don’t see it happening if things continue as they are. I sure hope Henry can pull this off.

  3. Jim Regan

    Dan, does it really surprise anyone that the Globe’s ad revenue is down
    31% since 2009? Should Chesto have mentioned in his story on Gatehouse Pubs. that he was the former business editor QPL. Or was full disclosure not necessary here.
    And to Ms. Bennett … Canceling Globe 7 day circulation shuts you out of access to BostonGlobe.com and leaves you Boston.com, not your favorite.

  4. Jerry Ackerman

    Ms. Bennett, I think that people of that “certain age” (like you and me) are in fact the best thing the Globe and other metros have going. We may not be the big-spending demographic that the business office would prefer, but without us they would have next to nothing. If anything they should be putting more effort into keeping us.

  5. Jerry Ackerman

    Chesto’s reporting leaves me thinking these actions are nothing less than predatory. The SEC definitely should take its time in approving the deal. The Justice Department’s antitrust division should take note. And some input from various state attorneys general would turn up the heat.

  6. Mike Benedict

    You want a reason why papers are in trouble? Here’s the third story on the Tribune website right now:

    Jay Cutler’s wife ticketed for speeding in Evanston

    *Photos: Kristin Cavallari

    *Photos: Kristin Cavallari in Chicago

    *Photos: Jay Cutler and Kristin Cavallari

    What garbage.

  7. Jerry Ackerman

    They’re all file photos, all 35 of them, some staff but mostly publicity handouts via Getty and others. Only two show Cutler. I had expected at least to see Kristin in tears while being lectured by the cop.

Comments are closed.