It’s not much fun owning a newspaper these days.
Circulation and advertising revenues are falling on both sides of the Atlantic. It doesn’t make for an attractive business model.
Recently, the New York Times sold the Boston Globe for $70m. In 1993, it bought it for $1.1bn. That’s a 93% loss in nominal terms, and much worse if you take inflation into account. Throw in the fact that the NYT still retains the Globe’s $100m pension liabilities, and it adds up to a truly disastrous investment.
Even the ultimate newspaper tycoon, Rupert Murdoch, is moving for the exits, splitting his companies into news and entertainment arms.
So why on earth has Jeff Bezos – the founder of giant internet retailer Amazon – just splashed out $250m on the Washington Post? And has he spotted an opportunity that other investors have missed?
Newspapers have been hit hard by digital competition
The newspaper industry has been hit hard by the internet. And unlike the music industry, which has had time to adapt to the world of downloads, the publishing business is still struggling to find its way.
Fifteen years ago, the hope was that providing a free web version of the newspaper would bring in extra readers. The resulting additional digital advertising revenue would more than cover any loss of print readership.
In reality, that was pure wishful thinking. Because they could get the paper for free online, people simply stopped buying the print edition. At the same time, the rates publishers could command for online ads proved far lower than hoped (between 10-20% of the price of an equivalent print ad).
However, there are glimmers of hope. The smarter papers – including the more specialist Financial Times – realised early on that the ‘free’ model wasn’t going to work. Instead, the FT used paywalls to limit the number of articles that people could view without paying, forcing them to take out subscriptions.
This model has gradually spread through the industry. Three years ago, The Times caused a big stir when it became the second major paper to limit access to its site. While this move was criticised, the new digital subscribers mean that its combined circulation has now risen.
Earlier this year, The Daily Telegraph rolled out a similar (but more flexible) version, while The Sun now charges for access to its website too. With the rise of tablets and smartphones, which make it easier to view papers on the go, this shows a way for papers to return to profitability.
The same thing is happening in the US. Just before it was bought by Amazon, the Washington Post announced that it was going to limit free access to its website. In fact, USA Today is now the only paper with completely free access.
Of course, the trend of moving content behind paywalls is also good for those who choose to remain free, since it reduces competition for ‘eyeballs’. Both the Daily Mail and The Guardian have won online readers from The Times, while people expect the Mirror’s website to benefit from The Sun’s paywall.
"The only financial publication I could not be without."
John Lang, Director, Tower Hill Associates Ltd
Betting on tycoons searching for status symbols
As well as finding new sources of revenue, the industry has also been cracking down on costs. One of the big problems papers have faced is that during good times, they over-expanded. In some cases this meant over-staffing – such as second-tier US papers having foreign bureaux for example. Like most other industries, newspapers have also had to struggle with large pension liabilities. However, after several rounds of downsizing they are finally getting to grips with the problem.
As well as cutting staff and pension bills, papers are also finding ways to cut distribution costs, one of their largest areas of spending. Moving logistics operations in house has been one cost-cutting move. But in the longer term, one of the benefits the digital revolution can offer the industry is that it costs next to nothing to distribute online magazines to a tablet or smartphone. Indeed, one of the reasons that Bezos bought the Washington Post was presumably to take advantage of the distribution network he has through Amazon’s Kindle e-reader.
And these savings apply even more to reaching readers in other countries. Instead of the expense of international editions, websites can be easily tailored with country-specific material.
Even those newspapers that are unable to make money may have a future. Even though their influence has declined, they are still able to set the tone of the national conversation. While this may not directly translate into profits, it does make them attractive to wealthy buyers.
The obvious parallel is with football. Even successful clubs are a poor investment, with most money going to players and agents. However, despite this, we’ve seen wealthy tycoons pour tens – and then hundreds – of millions into teams. Manchester City and Chelsea are the most obvious examples of this.
Betting on status-hungry billionaires is a high-risk investment strategy, of course. But the Bezos deal has set off a round of speculation that other wealthy entrepreneurs may follow in his footsteps. Indeed, James Fallows, writing for the American magazine The Atlantic, points out that in the early days of mass newspapers they were largely bankrolled by tycoons looking for prestige rather than profits. And over here in the UK, the Russian tycoon Alexander Lebedev already owns the Evening Standard and The Independent.
Two newspapers to invest in now
One company that should do well in this new environment is the New York Times (NYSE: NYT). It is an internationally known brand, and is targeted at a specific audience who are willing to pay for it, which also makes it attractive to a private buyer. After installing a paywall, it has attracted many digital subscribers, with its combined circulation rising by 37%.
Based on current earnings, it is expensive, trading on a price/earnings ratio of 25. However, JP Morgan believes its circulation will grow further and that the sale of regional newspapers will strengthen its balance sheet. Indeed, there are signs that the NYT is close to paying a dividend for the first time in years, which could send prices up.
Another, more local, option is the Daily Mail and General Trust (LSE: DMGT). As well as a host of regional newspapers, DMGT owns the Daily Mail. The move towards paywalls, as well as a focus on gossip and celebrity stories, has helped its free website MailOnline gain millions of viewers, including a huge following in the US. Its daily free newspaper, Metro is also extremely successful. The share trades at 15 times earnings, more than justified by its excellent growth prospects, and yields 2.2%.
Our recommended articles for today
When it comes to making profits in risky markets, it pays to be an optimistic investor, says David Thornton.
Japan’s banking system is on the mend and the stock market is set to take off, says James Ferguson. Here he outlines the best ways to invest.
New to MoneyWeek?
Welcome, and thank you for visiting us.
Here at MoneyWeek, our aim is simple. To give you intelligent and enjoyable commentary on the most important financial stories of the week, and tell you how to profit from them.
If you've enjoyed what you've read so far, I've got something you'll definitely be interested in.
Every working day the MoneyWeek team sends out a hard-hitting email, 'Money Morning', giving you a rundown of the latest financial events, and revealing what you should do to maximise profits and head off losses…
And with your permission, I'd like to send you Money Morning for FREE.
To sign-up enter your email address below.
We hope you enjoy your stay on the site. Good luck with your investments!
Digital Managing Editor, MoneyWeek