NEWSPAPER RECOVERY REMAINS ELUSIVE

Help-Wanted Revenue Continues Declining as Economy Struggles

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Anyone who wished for a graphic portrayal of how the economic downturn has affected newspapers only needed to hear Jack Fuller, president of Tribune Co.'s publishing operations, quantify the decline of help-wanted revenues at his company.

In 2000, Tribune's stable of 12 newspapers, which includes the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Newsday, took in $600 million in help-wanted revenue. In 2002, the papers took in $300 million. And, in what Mr. Fuller termed a "30-month decline," Tribune Co.'s help-wanted dollars fell another 15% in the first half of 2003, Mr. Fuller told analysts yesterday at the Mid-Year Media Review.

Glimmer of better news
In a glimmer of better news, Mr. Fuller

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said that even with this year's decline in help-wanted revenues -- by far the largest component of newspapers' classified ad franchise -- Tribune's newspaper ad revenue still rose 2% in the first half of '03.

But comments from Tribune and Gannett Co. executives testified that a true turnaround for newspaper remained elusive and was made more so by the war in Iraq.

"The worst is clearly behind us," said Douglas H. McCorkindale, chairman-CEO of Gannett. But he immediately added that "the bounce" of a recovery had yet to materialize. The path to recovery, he said, "will be uneven," and he noted that ad revenue projections were "all over the lot."

Gannett nonetheless posted earnings growth in the first quarter, with earnings per share rising to 93 cents from 91 cents, and total at revenue in its newspaper division, which does not include national daily USA Today, rose 2.2% year-to-date.

'Economy is still really struggling'
"Once the [disappointing] May numbers were out, it was pretty clear newspapers were not coming back" yet, said Ed Atorino, an analyst for investment bankers Blaylock & Partners, New York. Although executives talked up a second-half recovery, Mr. Atorino tamped down such expectations. "July and August are not months you build a big recovery from," he said, and his early assessment of fourth-quarter dynamics was not especially upbeat: "The economy is still really struggling."

Media deregulation
The Federal Communication Commission's vote to deregulate media ownership, which is of particular interest to companies like Gannett and Tribune that have newspaper and television holdings, was noted with approval by company executives. Though the U.S. Senate is considering reversing the FCC's rules changes, executives appeared unconcerned.

"Washington at its best," quipped Mr. McCorkindale, a vocal proponent of deregulation. He added he did not expect any reversal to occur, a view that was shared by Tribune Broadcasting President Patrick Mullen.

A sunnier tone was struck by executives at Meredith Corp., which publishes a magazine division dominated by Better Homes and Gardens and a broadcast division with 11 TV stations.

Turnaround at Meredith
Its broadcasting division was once cause for serious investor concern, as well as persistent rumors it may be sold. But Kevin O'Brien, the division's aggressive president who has won kudos for his stewardship, said that for the nine months ended March 31, the segment's operating profits rose 59% and revenues were up 19%.

Mr. O'Brien also obliquely dismissed sale scenarios, saying the company would now look for duopolies "wherever we can" and to "grow where it makes sense."

In a bit of magazine-related news, Publishing President Stephen Lacy said the company was developing and testing a title "in the spirituality area," and said the company would be revealing more about that over the next few months. Also, Meredith's chairman-CEO, William T. Kerr said the company's Living Room magazine project, which targets a younger audience than its core titles, remained "on hold" until the company had "a better feel for where the economy was going." But he insisted the project has not been abandoned. "Living Room is still alive," he said.

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