🗞The NYT, New Media Models & Snowflake Subscribers🗞
Take a look at these revenue numbers:
This, ladies and gentlemen, represents the most recently reported revenue from New York Times Co. ($NYT). It’s also evolution, illustrated.
We all know the story: in an age of heaps of free media and secular decline of print, media companies are (a) in the midst of a great pivot away from the ad-based business model and (b) as part of a hybrid model, leaning more heavily upon recurring-revenue-producing subscription (and other) products.
This pivot — and the reason for it — couldn’t be clearer from the reported Q2 ‘19 earnings. As you can see above, advertising revenue is flat, while subscription and “other” revenue is growing.
Generally speaking, the report was sound. The company added 131k net subscriptions; it also separately grew its separate subscription channels for “Cooking” and “Crossword,”* and launched a news series, “The Weekly,” on FX and Hulu (PETITION Note: we can’t help but question the long-term success of this series: who really wants to go to Hulu to watch a NYT news series? In the end, that didn’t work for Vice News on HBO. That said, this series apparently contributed to a 30% increase in “other” revenue in the quarter, so, who knows? Maybe we’re dead wrong). In total, subscriptions were up by 197k and the company now reports 3.8mm digital-only subscribers.
On the negative side, the company’s operating costs are increasing and, in turn, its operating profit is decreasing (down $4mm YOY) as it looks to grow its digital channels, properly analyze and manage its sales funnel, acquire additional journalist talent, etc. Some choice bits relating to subscriptions from the earnings call:
Total subscription revenues increased 4% in the quarter with digital-only subscription revenue growing 14% to $113 million. On the print subscription side, revenues were down 2.5% due to declines in the number of home delivery subscriptions and continued shift of subscribers moving to less frequent and therefore less expensive delivery packages as well as a decline in single copy sales. This decrease in print subscription revenues was partially offset by a home delivery price increase that was implemented early in the year.
Total daily circulation declined 8.5% in the quarter compared with prior year, while Sunday circulation declined 7.1%.
No surprises here. Digital is ⬆️, print is ⬇️, and even where there is print, the average revenue per user is shifting down in large part due to subscribers opting for ⬇️ delivery frequency. Interestingly, people are also buying fewer newspapers on the fly (“single copy sales”).
On the advertising side:
Total advertising revenue grew 1.3% compared with the prior year with digital advertising growing 14% and print declining by 8%. The increase in digital advertising revenue was largely driven by growth in direct sold advertising on our digital platforms, including advertising sold in our podcast and our creative services business. The print advertising result was mainly due to declines in the financial services, retail and media categories, partially offset by growth in technology.
The stock market did not act favorably — note the demarcation below:
Indeed, as of the time of this writing, the share price is down 20% from where it was on the date of the release.
There are some interesting takeaways here. First, podcasts continue to be a source of growth for many a media company — despite the lack of viable analytics across the podcasting space. Second, the second order effects of the decline in retail and media are notable. Third, the company’s purchase of Wirecutter is feeding its “other” revenue which implies — though it is not line-itemed — that affiliate-related revenue is a growing part of the business (long Amazon!).**
As for guidance, the company forecasted continued YOY subscription growth in the low-to-mid single digits, a decrease in ad revenue, and an increase in “other” revenue. Notably, “other” revenue also includes income from subletting office space, commercial printing, and licensing deals (i.e., when the NYT is referenced in a movie, etc.).
It will be interesting to see whether the NYT can continue to demonstrate subscriber growth in the midst of a hyper-polarized political environment. To point, a shift to subscribers is not without its dangers. Recently the NYT came under pressure both for (i) its 1619 Project about slavery and (ii) a headline describing President Trump’s reaction to the El Paso and Dayton shootings. Per The Wrap:
The New York Times saw an increase in subscription cancellations after a reader backlash over its lead headline on a story about a Donald Trump speech on Monday, a Times spokesperson told TheWrap.
The paper has “seen a higher volume of cancellations today than is typical,” the spokesperson said on Tuesday.
In an age of hyper-competition for the marginal dollar, this is a big problem. In a story about the dismal performance of the Los Angeles Times’ digital initiatives (net 13k subscriptions in the first six months of ‘19), Joshua Benton writes for Neiman Lab:
But once you get all those subscribers signed up, you’ve got to prove yourself worthy of their money, over and over again. Churn has always been an issue for newspapers, but it’s even more of one in a world of constant competition for subscription dollars. (“Hmm, Netflix raised their price — do I really use that L.A. Times subscription?”) Retention is critical to making reader revenue the bedrock of the new business model….
That’s what happens when you switch to a subscriber model. Investors care less about ad revenue and more about subscriber growth. Each individual subscriber matters. And retention really matters.
But retention cannot come at a cost. A publication must establish values and live up to them. Take, for instance, this note we received from a reader recently:
“Your writings are done well, interesting, and humorous. However, take it from me and many of my colleagues, your anti-Trump insults are aggravating and misguided. Some of us are considering unsubscribing because of it.”
He is referring to this piece, “💥Tariffs Tear into Tech+💥,” wherein we wrote about the recent escalation in trade hostility as follows:
We’re frankly not sure why this is controversial. All we did was insinuate that the man is intemperate (is that really even debatable?) and describe him in his own words.
President Trump’s policies — for better or for worse — have an impact on the economy. The delivery of those policies infuses volatility into the markets. It affects whether a company will commit to investing millions in coming months; it affects sales; it affects consumer spending which, in case you didn’t notice, is, for now, the only thing keeping GDP afloat. We’re going to write about that. And we’re going to do so in our usual voice. Just like we would if a democrat were in office: we’re equal opportunity snark.***
So, sure, Mr. Orange County, feel free to cancel your Membership if you think we’re misguided. That’s just what we all need: another highly educated person running for the hills because a few words didn’t comport with his sensibilities. Thanks for summing up this country’s current plight of discourse/discord in three sentences.
In conclusion, we won’t be bullied, subscription be damned.
*Impressively, the Cooking product has 250k subscribers and the Crosswords product has 500k subscribers.
**For those who don’t know, an affiliate fee is essentially a referral fee for sending traffic over to an affiliate partner that ultimately results in a transaction. So, for instance, if you go to Wirecutter.com to look up best back-to-school backpack and click on their #1 choice, a L.L. Bean ‘Quad Pack,’ and buy one, Wirecutter earns approximately 4% on that purchase.
***Case in point: we’ve previously asked, “Are Progressives Bankrupting Restaurants?“
📰Speaking of Media: New Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Filing - The News-Gazette Inc. (Short…Gulp…Local News).📰
The New York Times recently declared:
The crisis in local journalism is catastrophic — and it will get worse. More than 1,300 communities across the United States are without local news coverage, and thousands more have inadequate journalism. At the next recession, the collapse will accelerate.
Studies have now validated what we all know intuitively: The disintegration of community journalism leads to greater polarization, lower voter turnout, more pollution, less government accountability and less trust.
Insert doomsday music here, folks.
Champaign Illinois-based The News-Gazette Inc. is the leading local news source in Champaign County, Illinois. It publishes a daily newspaper that reaches approximately 22k people Monday-Friday and 24.3k people on Sunday; it has five weekly newspapers, two advertising-oriented shopper products and two magazines; through a wholly owned debtor subsidiary, DWS Inc., it also operates three radio stations and several companion websites.
Now it is another example of a struggling local news provider. The company filed for bankruptcy in the District of Delaware over the holiday weekend.
In 2008, the company “took on substantial debt to complete the first phase of a new 48,865-square-foot printing and distribution facility” and completed said phase (the distribution part) just prior to the Great Recession. The rest of the project — including the acquisition of a new printing press geared towards driving a regional commercial printing business — never got done. The company notes:
The “great recession” of 2008, however, marked the beginning of an accelerated trend of advertising revenue declines for the newspaper business in general. As revenues fell and financial performance suffered, expansion plans had to be shelved because Debtors could neither access, nor afford, the capital necessary to complete the project.
Over the last decade, circulation trends have generally been better than industry averages owing in large part to a continued commitment to maintaining a very high-quality news product. During the last two years, however, the rate of decline in circulation has increased meaningfully.
“Better than industry averages” is, by definition, a relative measurement. Which ain’t saying much. On the other hand, the metrics are “saying much.” Revenue dropped from $17.1mm in 2017 to $13mm in 2018. EBITDA went from $70k in 2016 to -$4.83mm in 2018.
Consequently, the debtors have spent the last few years rejiggering their business. That, naturally, means that people lost jobs. The debtors outsourced their production operations and liquidated its production assets; they also reduced their expenses and eliminated the facility-related debt. Nevertheless, the debtors needed an escape hatch; in late 2018, they engaged a broker to solicit interest from a strategic buyer “with financial resources and media footprint to further economize operations” to operate the debtors as a going concern.
The goal of the chapter 11 bankruptcy filing is to effectuate a sale to Community Media Group LLC by early November. Community Media Group is a privately-held multimedia company which owns and operates roughly 40 newspapers in six states. Subject to standard sale adjustments, CMG will pay $4.5mm.
It appears that the future of local news is increasingly in their hands.
What happens to the employees? Well, as noted above, a number have already lost their jobs and those that remain were the glorious recipients of WARN notices (though some may be rehired). The company’s CEO said:
“It is most certainly regrettable that some employees won’t be rehired during the transition. Our economic circumstances — which are not unique to this operation — require that we operate more efficiently. Absent this sale transaction, we would be making similar decisions.”
The buyer is also leaving behind any and all liabilities (including withdrawal liabilities) with respect to defined benefit plans, pensions or similar retirement plans. As luck would have it, those liabilities make up the debtors’ three largest creditors:
With a purchase price of $4.5mm, well, you can get a sense of how creditors, including folks who depended upon those pensions, will fare here. Pension liabilities alone are nearly $9mm.
And so this is a bittersweet result. The paper will live on but those who helped build it will be undeniably affected.
Since we’re on the topic of local newspapers:
Obituaries, believe it or not, are one minor bright spot for local newspaper revenue (though this varies by market), despite looming challenges; and
Public notices — another source of revenue for local newspapers — are under siege. Choice bit:
…public notice has increasingly come under attack. In recent years, some cash-strapped state legislatures have tried to remove the requirement that public notices be published in newspapers, opting instead to allow government entities to post them for free on their own websites.
At least there is still the occasional (useless) local bankruptcy notice. 😜
⚡️ICYMI: New Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Filing - RAIT Funding LLC (f/k/a Taberna Funding LLC)⚡️
Philadelphia-based RAIT Financial Trust ($RASF) and six debtor affiliates filed for bankruptcy just before the long holiday weekend on a petition and a petition only (might as well let the professionals enjoy the weekend…the stay is in effect!). The company, an internally-managed REIT focused on managing a portfolio of $1.5b worth of CRE assets, loans and properties will be sold to Fortress Investment Group LLC in bankruptcy pursuant to section 363 of the bankruptcy code, subject to any higher or better offers. Fortress has agreed to pay $174.4mm (subject to adjustments and excluding the assumption of certain liabilities).
The debtors are in the business of providing debt financing to owners of multi-family apartment buildings, office buildings, light-industrial properties and neighborhood retail centers in the US. Except, like, they’re kinda not. In early February ‘18, the debtors ceased underwriting new loans and sold a portion of its real estate and loan portfolio. Why? To bolster liquidity. Why? Per the company:
As a result of the 2008-2009 financial crisis, ongoing market conditions, and other factors, RAIT incurred approximately $1.468 billion in losses between 2008 and 2018 through mortgage write-offs, asset write-downs, and losses on the sale of assets.
In case you can’t tell, that’s pretty effing bad. Consequently, the debtors have been in a state of perpetual restructuring AND marketing going as far back as Q3 ‘17. Regarding the former, the debtors, in addition to suspending its origination business and selling off its property portfolio, actively repurchased or repaid debt, sold loans, sold its property management business, down-sized management and laid off employees, terminated dividends (reminder: this is a REIT, so this is obviously NO BUENO), and engaged restructuring professionals. With respect to the latter, the debtors’ ‘17-’18 sale process failed, only to be reinitiated in the second half of 2018. Fortress Credit Advisors submitted a winning bid in January 2019.
Wait. You’re not crazy. It IS September. So, why did it take so long to file the bankruptcy to consummate the sale? It took a month and a half to a term sheet done and then another “six months of extensive due diligence.” We can only imagine the fun those analysts had digging into one loan after another.
In the end, this seems like a good result for stakeholders. Fortress adds to its extensive and growing portfolio and the holders of the 7.125% Senior Notes, the holders of the 7.625% Senior Notes, and all administrative, priority and general unsecured claims, will, thanks also in part to an RSA with the junior subordinated notes, receive payment in full, in cash of their allowed claims.
Nothing in this email is intended to serve as financial or legal advice. Do your own research, you lazy rascals.