Shares of Gannett Co., which owns The Des Moines Register, traded in the low $8 range during most of March. The company has lost roughly 45 percent of its value since it split – at $15 a share – from Gannett’s 46-station broadcast division in June 2015. The broadcast unit, now called Tegna Inc., got the better deal because it retained ownership of profitable online businesses Cars.com and CareerBuilder, which are outgrowths of classified advertising. Even so, Tegna’s share price last month was down about 15 percent from the split value of $30.
I follow this stuff because I worked at the Register for 38 years, including 26 years as a business writer and editor, before retiring in 2012. Since joining the Business Record in July 2012, I’ve commented occasionally about the health of the Register, Gannett and newspapers in general.
I believe that there is, and will continue to be, a role for small local newspapers, but that larger dailies that don’t provide neighborhood-level local news are living on borrowed time.
Smaller dailies can survive by doing two interrelated things. First, they need to tell people what is happening in their communities at city hall, in local schools, on ball fields and at entertainment venues.
If they do that well, they’ll capture an audience that appeals to local advertisers. The second thing they need to do is be able to serve those advertisers in print, online and with other exposures, including sponsorship options.
When I left the Register, top executives gave lip service to that concept, but didn’t implement it. Gannett’s problem today is top executives continue to believe – as did leaders of other failed media chains – that the path to success is to supersize everything.
The chain continues to buy properties, consolidate operations and cut duplicative services, as it did for four decades. That strategy worked for investors at one time. But the paradigm changed 10 years ago, and Gannett didn’t.
In recent years, Gannett has added new spin to the old strategy. They now want reporters in Des Moines to write broadly about topics that will appeal to readers in other Gannett markets. That way they don’t need to hire as many reporters in Des Moines or Louisville or Great Falls, Mont.
My friend and former Register colleague Tom Witosky believes Gannett’s goal is to eventually have one national brand, USA Today, with local inserts for each of the chain’s 100 or so local markets. Whatever Gannett’s plan is, it isn’t working. Circulation and advertising revenues continues to drop.
Michael Gartner, the former Register editor who writes Civic Skinny, a widely read column in Cityview, reported earlier this week that circulation of the Register’s daily edition averaged 62,334 for the quarter ending Dec. 31, 2016. That’s down nearly 9 percent from 68,270 a year earlier and down 57 percent from 145,653 10 years ago.
Meanwhile, Gannett reported that advertising revenue, not including acquisitions, was down 10 percent for the quarter ending Dec. 25.
During the 22 months since Gannett separated print from broadcast, the print arm has made three key acquisitions: the Journal Media Group in Milwaukee, an online advertising vehicle called ReachLocal and a collection of New Jersey newspapers.
As recently as last summer, some financial analysts believed the expansion strategy, which included buying off shareholders with a high dividend yield, could work for investors, if not for the communities served by Gannett newspapers.
Now, at least one of those analysts isn’t so sure. Last week, Michael Wiggins DeOlivera, wrote an article titled “Gannett Has No Margin of Safety,” saying he is no longer convinced Gannett can generate the cash needed to support its stock price.