Archive for the Company news Category

The (Part of) Oregonian

Posted in Company news on December 17, 2008 by sizzlingjboy

Last week our sister paper on the west coast, The Oregonian, sent letters to subscribers in the second largest metro area of its state, Eugene. Those letters announced the cessation of daily distribution of the newspaper there.

Does this mean some Newhouse franchises will soon start attempting a Detroit Experiment? Does such a pull-back make economic sense? What do readers think?

On the first, we must wait and see. On the second, some news analysts have noted that since more than half of newspaper revenues typically come from their Sunday paper (which The Oregonian will continue to deliver to  the Eugene environs) such gambits could actually make a significant dent in costs without severely affecting income.

Reader opinion on the subject is not quite so positive. Here is what subscriber Betsy Boyd of Eugene had to say about it on her OregonLive blog.

Highlight:

The Oregonian has always tried to be a big vision newspaper, bold enough to claim the state’s name. How does The Oregonian survive this period of news format disequilibrium if it gives up on Oregon’s next largest metropolitan area after Portland? Does a name change come next?

The news hit me first like an unexpected loss in the night. But when the morning came (along with my newspapers), it felt more like a dear yet provoking and distinguished member of the community had just made an incomprehensible mistake, too strange and disastrous to overlook. The neighbors are talking. Some are angry. Everyone is aghast.

The lone comment is that The Oregonian wouldn’t be doing this unless it made good business sense. Whether that is true is just another thing on which we will have to wait and see.

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Abandon ship?

Posted in Company news on December 9, 2008 by sizzlingjboy

Over the weekend Star-Ledger part-timer Lee Roberts stirred a little ruckus when he passed on an assessment regarding the future of the newspaper industry. The issue wasn’t so much what Lee brought to everyone’s attention, rather it was how he did it. The editorial-all email he dispatched had as subject line: “You should have taken the buyout.”

One responder faulted him for being negative and another for not being sensitive to others. Both seemed to believe that the news from the bond-rating firm Fitch Ratings wasn’t surprising. “I think we’re all very aware of what’s going on in our industry,” was one quote.

Just to make sure we are all aware of what is going in our industry, here is the highlight from that Dec. 3, 2008 rating report: “Fitch believes more newspapers and newspaper groups will default, be shut down and be liquidated in 2009 and several cities could go without a daily print newspaper by 2010.”

Fitch also listed the debt rating for two newspaper groups — McClatchy and Tribune — at junk status because of the likelihood of default. Less than a week after that assessment Tribune company filed for bankruptcy. McClatchy renegotiated it’s billion-plus dollar debt load earlier this year but still may not be able to maintain payments.

However, what is striking these two chains is neither unique or isolated. What’s more, it significantly pre-dated the economic collapse of September. Even before Sam Zell finalized the deal for Tribune, less than a year ago, questions were being raised as to whether the company could service the $13 billion debt (required to finance the purchase) given a steepening decline of advertising revenue and circulation.

But more to the point, what does any of this have to do with us at The Ledger.

First the good news:

• The paper is privately held; there are no shareholders demanding an increase in the value of their stock. (There may, however, be some Newhouse family members concerned about the size of their dividends.)
• While little is known about the Newhouse empire (it’s privately held, so doesn’t have to file annual info with the SEC) it is assumed it carries little debt load.
• The Newhouse family has never demanded the level of profit that has led companies like Gannett and Tribune to gut entire newspapers. Even if you don’t believe what has been said about the financial situation at The Ledger, it seems clear that for some time it has not approached the margins considered SOP by other newspaper companies.

What’s the bad news?

• The relationship between the newspaper and its online entity would have to improve to become dysfunctional. At the moment one could argue they aren’t even working toward the same goals.
• Other than survival it isn’t clear what goals there are for the newspaper or the internet entity. No long-term plan has been mentioned (expectations of a return to profitability are not a plan, they may not even be a realistic goal in this economic climate) and no interim steps have been provided that would guide toward those uncertain goals.
• As the newspaper advertising market continues to collapse The Ledger and NJ.com still lack the infrastructure to efficiently sell ads online or locally should any interested buyers be found. Worse than not recruiting new advertisers, the newspaper and NJ.com may have to turn them away.
• Speaking of NJ.com, Nielsen online reports continue to indicate slippage both in numbers of unique visitors and time of visit. From Oct. ’07 to Oct. ’08, the average time spent per person at our web site fell from nearly 12 minutes to less than 3. Only two of the other top-30 news sites reported such a precipitous decline. Some (NY Times, Houston Chronicle, Politico, Village Voice) reported major gains. Rumors of changes at Advance Internet continue to be just rumors. Given the Soviet-era mindset in Jersey City, changes to address such obvious failings could begin in 2013.
• Editorial management at the newspaper hasn’t finished planning for the future even though it is already here. Meetings continue about how the editorial department will function as departure-day for the last of the buyout-ees looms.
• Instead of using the smaller staff to focus on largest audiences or the newspaper’s core strengths, editorial leaders seem intent on trying to keep the newspaper just as it is (with maybe fewer pages and a couple of cosmetic changes). Rather than reorganize, the newspaper seems to have simply reduced staff.

Does that mean The Ledger is doomed and we should all have jumped ship? No.

Many people love newspapers. Lots think they are necessary (they supply a significant portion of the internet’s best content and may be critical to a functioning democracy). What’s more, privately owned newspapers (like The Ledger) seem a better bet for the future. Publicly held newspapers are much more interested in profit than journalism and much less likely to even want to survive if massive profits are gone forever.

But, if you will pardon my extension of a metaphor, The Ledger is leaking badly and listing to stern. The hand on the helm seems far from certain how to navigate through a screaming gale that is about to become a class 5 hurricane. The time for rearranging deck chairs and waiting to see which way the wind blows is long past. All that may be left is to batten hatches and pump for your lives.

Besides, the lifeboats are already away.

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The List

Posted in Company news on November 1, 2008 by sizzlingjboy

When I saw the list, I couldn’t help but wish that Rob Gebeloff’s name was on there.

Sure, Gebeloff absconded for points east long before the buyout, so he didn’t even get to enjoy the wait with us and certainly wouldn’t be among the 160 or so names listed as those remaining at The Ledger now that all the recent fun is done.

Why would it be good to still have him around? Because he would have databased all the folks — those who are staying and those who soon will be gone — by age, salary, marital status and whether their children are nearing college age. He would have mined our personal info and then rendered it as digital three dimensional computerized graphics that would have told us lots about how the recent events have changed the workforce in the newsroom and newspaper.

He would have compared median age before and after the buyout, telling us whether that figure went up or down. He would have compared the average pay, how many children they have per capita, household expenses and many other data points I’m not even considering.

Perhaps it could have factored in economic and market trends, provided some quotient for hope or fear that might give insight into why some let go and others still hang on.

What would it tell us? What kind of portrait would it paint of those who left and those who stayed? Maybe we don’t really want to know.

But I can’t help but wonder when I see a list rendered in such spare, unevocative terms. The journalist in me demands context, analysis, some deeper meaning. Is it a roll call of the fortunate or the damned? Should those on it be given congratulations or commiserations?

And why have all those departing been acknowledged only by their absence from this list?

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AP on notice

Posted in Company news on October 28, 2008 by sizzlingjboy

According to Editor & Publisher, The Star-Ledger is one of several daily newspapers discussing the formation of content-sharing consortium that could provide them with state or regional feeds in place of those provided by The Associated Press.

The story says:

A “Northeast Consortium” of newspapers, which will include New York’s Daily News … Newsday, The Buffalo News, the Times-Union of Albany, N.Y., and the Star Ledger of Newark, N.J. is weeks away from announcing a content-sharing arrangement that will include both stories and photos.

One executive who spoke on condition of anonymity and who attended the “summit” of New York-area papers, held in Manhattan within the past two weeks, cited cost savings, more timely exchange of content, and what that executive called “a new spirit of cooperation” as the primary motivations for such an undertaking. This source referred to the “Draconian terms” of the AP, which last Thursday responded to newspapers’ concerns by announcing further rate cuts and restructuring.

I’m not privy to our AP fees, but The Columbus Dispatch, with daily circulation more than 100,000 lower than The Star-Ledger, pays $800,000 a year, according to E&P.

But this isn’t just about money, according to the story’s source.

“It’s fair to say that newspapers across America are upset with the treatment they get from the AP,” the executive said. “Newspapers are now taking the view that they want to take events into their own hands. The truth of it is, there is a real desire to get better content, shared among people in non-competitive markets.”

AP is responding to the rising tide of dissatisfaction by freezing or lowering fees and discontinuing its tier structure for distribution of text.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer is apparently already part of such a group made up of Ohio newspapers.

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Surprise: Times gets new publisher

Posted in Company news on October 27, 2008 by sizzlingjboy

Richard Bilotti, longtime publisher of The Times of Trenton, announced Thursday he will retire in November.

The departure of Bilotti, who spent almost 25 years at the newspaper’s helm, is hardly unexpected. Most of the staff, including almost everyone in the editorial department, has been granted a buyout that will see them leaving by the end of this year.

What came as a bit of a curveball was the promotion of Brian Malone to replace Bilotti.

It isn’t just that Malone may not have a staff. Based on statements made by The Star-Ledger’s publisher, the plans for the Times involve it becoming essentially a re-masted version of The Ledger with a hyper-local online presence.

However, as with so many other things these days, plans seem to change on an almost daily basis. Likewise there often seems a lot of leeway between what is said and what actually occurs.

Regardless, Malone will need more than congratulations in his new post. But we offer it anyway.

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Notes from Publisher’s meeting

Posted in Company news on October 17, 2008 by sizzlingjboy

According to reports, the following topics came up at October publisher’s meeting:

1. The publisher would not confirm just how many buyouts had been applied for. He was pressed on this issue but refused to budge despite acknowledging there is no good reason for keeping the number under wraps.

2. Notification of those whose buyouts have been accepted should begin taking place within days. Most recipients will be informed in the very near future. He said it has been delayed by two factors: a) An ongoing debate between he and the news editor over how many should be accepted. b) Conflicting opinions over whether replacements should be hired for any of those beyond the targeted number (200-230) who are given buyouts.

3. Once the buyout recipients have been identified, they will be let go in waves. Wave one will be dispatched Nov. 1; wave two will go out the door Dec. 1, and the balance will depart Dec. 31. The publisher said there were advantages in having the majority go early.

4. The entire cost of the buyouts will be charged to Calendar Year 2008’s operations.

5. The budget for 2009 will show the S-L returning to profitability despite continued erosion of ad revenue premised on the demise of Circuit City, the loss of some car dealerships and the continued slump in real estate.

6. A  company cost saver under consideration is the elimination or reduction of the annual bonuses next year.

7. The newspaper will likely leave the current building within the next 2-3 years.

8. The Trenton Times will largely become a web-focused, hyper-local experiment for the Ledger.

Unofficial counts

Posted in Company news on October 9, 2008 by sizzlingjboy

According to multiple reliable sources the buyout count for the Ledger topped 400 with about 200 coming from the editorial department (the latter number is almost two out of every three staffers).

Certainly those numbers will be reduced in the coming month and department heads were told today to inform their people that it isn’t too late to attempt to rescind the buyout.

Many younger staffers who opted for the buyout are already expressing concern that they will lose out if the number is held close to the 230 target set at the beginning of the process. However, there is no announced criteria for determining who will get a buyout and who will not.

As an interesting side note, sources at The Trenton Times report that 33 or the 35 qualified editorial staffers requested the buyout and all have been told their request will be honored. That raises the question of how the Trenton paper will continue to be produced without an editorial staff.