This pretty much completes the circle: Now Gannett is ready to spin-off its print properties, following Scripps in 2007, Belo in 2008, News Corp. in 2013, Tribune Company in 2014, and Time-Warner in 2014 — not to mention the Graham family putting the Washington Post up for adoption by Jeff Bezos.
Thus ends the decootification of media companies: entertainment here/print there; future here/past there; profitable here/screwed there. In corporate transactions, an unnamed venture is called a newco. In these media transactions, the abandoning parents might as well have called each progeny a crapco. They are not only set off on ice floes like elderly Eskimos awaiting a cold death, but some of their abusive parents — namely Time-Warner and Tribune — saddled them with horrendous debt. A few didn’t. Gannett’s spin-off is to be debt-free. Give considerable credit to Rupert Murdoch — who does love newspapers — leaving News Corp. with no debut and $2.6 billion in cash.
This is happening because the bad news for news isn’t over. The last best category of advertising in newspapers is the distribution of FSIs, free-standing inserts — circulars and coupons — which by one account adds up to 30-50 percent of newspapers’ retail advertising (though retail advertising continues to plummet). The last, best reason to keep printing and distributing a newspaper is FSIs. When you see papers cut frequency of printing or distribution to a few days a week, those are not hot news days; those are the days that bring FSIs and their revenue.
I’ve been saying here for some time that FSIs will go away. About two years ago, I asked a big-box retailer that makes much money from its circulars (from charging brands for presence in them) how long it would be before the circulation of print newspapers would fall below critical mass. The reply: 24-36 months. Note how long ago that was. FSIs are holding on for now but they are bound to start dropping off (a cliff) when (1) newspaper penetration — now running about a third of the country — continues to die off and as (2) consumer adoption of digital and especially mobile couponing rises and as (3) retail itself suffers in the face of Amazon and now Amazon, Google, and eBay all experimenting with same-day local delivery. Add (4): At the PostalVision2020 conference a year ago, the postmaster general described the entire business model of the United States Post Service as an advertising delivery medium; it will compete with newspapers for those last printed circulars and coupons and it is just as desperate for them.
I’ve also been saying here for some time that the real goal of newspaper publishers should be to become sustainable digital enterprises before the day when print becomes unsustainable. I’ve worked with two companies that are trying. Digital First started down the path but hasn’t arrived; it is a more digital and more viable company but still has a way to go to reach the promised land. Advance has consolidated digital and print in its markets, reducing print frequency in some and in all markets making digital the primary product for consumers and advertisers as well as staff and print a byproduct that still produces cash. Other companies have gone for short-term cash-flow fixes — namely, paywalls, whose growth has stalled both at Gannett (about 1 percent after a year) and now at The New York Times (in its latest quarterly report, the paper said growth of core digital subscriptions — apart from new digital products that themselves didn’t sell so well — stalled at just over 1 percent).
The job of turning a legacy news organization into a new digital organization is both wrenching and expensive. It requires urgency. It also requires patience and patient capital to fund reorganizations but especially innovation, which entails experimentation and thus failure — in a word, risk.
What these spin-offs signals is that media companies do not have the stomach, patience, capital, or guts to do the hard work that is still needed to finish turning around legacy media. So they spin them off. What used to be Gannett, Tribune, Scripps, and Belo are now TV companies. What used to be News Corp. and Time Warner are now entertainment companies — companies that might merge not, in my opinion, because that’s such a wonderful deal but because the best path they see to growth is not innovation there either but instead cutting costs and consolidating negotiating power to outmaneuver (with help from legacy telcos) the Netflixes of the future.
I see something else happening here: the end of the mass-media business model built on reach and frequency (unique users and pageviews) — in a word, volume. Google, Facebook, retargeting, programmatic advertising, all the companies and trends that are growing in advertising focus on individuals over masses, on data over mere exposure. If news companies do not figure out how to know people as individuals and find value there, reconstituting themselves as relationship rather than merely content companies, then they will find the ice floes under them melting sooner than later.
: LATER: Here I am on Bloomberg TV Market Makers on this story today.