At Florida newspapers, belt tightening galore
Wake up and good morning. The rough times for newspaper and media companies just get rougher. And Tampa Bay newspapers -- all Florida newspapers -- are in the thick of it. Tampa Tribune owner Media General reported a hefty $85.5 million loss in the fourth quarter and suspended its dividend among other cost-cutting and money-raising actions. And Times Publishing Co., which owns the St. Petersburg Times, put its Congressional Quarterly affiliate up for sale.
The belt tightening is not over. Stated Media General CEO Marshall N. Morton (in photo) on Thursday:
"The publishing division's lower fourth-quarter results were due to the continuation of the declining economic trends that we have experienced all year, particularly in Florida."
A New York Times story this week quoted Paul C. Tash, editor of the St. Petersburg Times, and chairman and chief executive of Times Publishing, on plans to use the proceeds from a CQ sale to bolster the newspaper:
“Right now, the newspaper’s not as successful as it once was, and CQ deserves an owner that can help grow it.”
Keep in mind these are different corporate animals. Publicly traded Media General, based in Richmond, Va., owns the Tribune and the local WFLA NBC TV affiliate here, among many newspapers and TV stations. The St. Pete Times (Florida's largest newspaper) is owned by the private, for-profit Times Publishing Co., which in turn is owned by the Poynter Institute, a St. Petersburg-based, nonprofit foundation for journalism education. As the New York Times story notes, Poynter operated at a $2.1 million loss in 2007, on $7.7 million in revenue, according to its most recent public filing with the IRS.
The best barometer to track Media General's health is the company's stock price. It closed Thursday at a puny $2.16 and boasts an anemic market value for the entire corporation of $49-million. Its stock has been as low as $1.27 and as high as $27.18 in the past year.
In a conference call with analysts Thursday, Media General executives outlined some of the steps (beyond job cuts) it is taking to pare more costs and raise new cash. It suspended its dividend. It's halting all company matching of 401(k) contributions starting in April. This week it struck a deal to sell its Jacksonville television station, WCWJ TV-17, to a Texas-based broadcaster.
Morton told analysts that the Super Bowl in Tampa means special coverage in both the Trib and at WFLA and sponsorships as a sponsor for the Tampa Bay Super Bowl host committee. Morton also mentioned a new "co-owned" magazine -- "an upscale lifestyle magazine for Tampa Bay will launch for the special Super Bowl edition, just in time for the game."
Some perspective. It's not just Tampa Bay newspapers taking it on the chin. The Orlando Sentinel and Fort Lauderdale's South Florida Sun-Sentinel are both owned by the Tribune Co., which is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The Miami Herald has been put up for sale (again) by struggling owner McClatchy. And Morris Publishing Group, owner of Jacksonville's Times-Union and 12 other daily newspapers, announced Wednesday it hired Lazard Freres & Co. as its financial advisor. Lazard is the same firm that advised the Tribune Co. as it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Morris is trying to sell enough assets to meet a negotiated May 30 deadline to repay its loans in full.
Hey, it's only January. Plenty of drama lies ahead for a Florida newspaper industry searching for a bottom to the market and leaner, more innovative ways to give people the news. Think about the times we live in. Who dares stay uninformed?
-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist