"Media Week" takes place in New York this week, as public newspaper company (GCI, TRB, NYT, GHS, MNI, DJ, WPO, LEE, SSP) CEOs talk about the state of their companies with Wall Street financial analysts who cover the trade. As a sign of the times, the number of those analysts covering newspapers has been diminished by a couple this year. Why? More of the newspaper industry is going private -- witness some of the ex-Knight Ridder titles and soon the Tribune company -- and anyhow the investment story being told is losing any sense of suspense. Parsing decline is not much of a pastime.
Life for newspaper CEOs is tough duty these days. For them, participating in Media Week must be like going to a friendly dentist's office. You can trade pleasantries, exchanging first names, but the activity just isn't fun. We can now listen to these sessions via webcast, available on companies' investor pages or on seekingalpha.com (by company ticker symbol).
Too often, the questions we hear just pick at the carcass of the problem, questions like. "How much of the real estate turndown is caused by particularly bad conditions in Florida and California," or "What's your capital spending plan next year?" Not unimportant questions, but there are too few questions that get to the core issues.
I'm not a member of the financial analyst community, and I don't want to make these CEO times any more difficult, but I would like to see a few more pointed questions asked -- the kinds of questions that journalists themselves are now quietly asking behind the scenes. They are tough questions, but ones that are to the point of the survival of print journalism companies as know them today.
Here's nine of them. What's yours?
- When I open up my Sunday paper, I see smaller sections, fewer stories, but still loads of circulars. With national and large regionals moving more ad dollars to the web, do you see any slackening of preprint revenue in 2008?
- We've been hearing for more than two years that the circulation decline will ebb as your company cycles through the elimination of marginal (giveaway, distant+) sales. Will 2008 be the year that the cycle has run its course, or is a further 2-4% daily and Sunday decline expected? The new ABC rules let you define "paid circulation" very broadly, setting about any price you want. How has the new rule changed your marketing plans for 2008?
- With the continuing circulation declines, how much longer can you sustain the premium pricing for mass market reach that's propped up margins? In fact, what's your median ad increase -- by category -- for 2008?
- We've heard a lot about the Yahoo Hot Jobs bump. Can you tell us in dollar or percentage terms what it will add to revenues next year? We've heard that phase 2 of the Yahoo agreement will allow you to integrate with Yahoo's sophisticated ad matching systems. But we've also heard that these ad sells will mainly be used to double remnant inventory pricing (currently at $1-3 CPMs). What kind of inventory do you plan to use Yahoo for and, here, too, what kind of dollar or percentage increase in revenues will happen next year? How do you compare the Yahoo Bump with the Google Bump, as so far gotten from the recently expanded program in which Google sells print newspaper space through its auction system?
- In an era of inevitably declining print revenues, does your company have a plan to transition as quickly as possible from print to digital, so that you won't be forever burdened with high legacy costs while building the online business? Can you tell us about it?
- Cost-containment is key in this transition. How much of your cost-cutting is attributable to newsprint and ink, how much to streamlining (production, advertising, circulation, publishing) systems and how much to staff reduction?
- FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, in pushing cross-ownership relaxation, has said that "Permitting cross-ownership can preserve the viability of newspapers
by allowing them to share their operational costs across multiple media
platforms." While Belo and Scripps have both taken divergent actions regarding print and broadcast assets, can you tell what you think of Martin's notion and of your own specific plans to both slash operational costs and create true multimedia platform journalism companies?
- What kind of contingency plan do you have for a recession?
- What do you tell executives who say, "It'll last until I retire"?