Tribune CEO: Selling (Typical) Digital Ads Is a 'Weak Business'

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Advertising sales is a tough job these days -- just ask Tribune Publishing CEO Jack Griffin:

"The typical digital display advertising business … it's a weak business."

That's what Mr. Griffin told Wall Street analysts during the company's fourth-quarter earnings call Wednesday, as he explained why digital ad revenue was essentially flat compared with the same quarter last year. Tribune Publishing owns 10 daily newspapers including the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune.

Other print-based media companies saw gains in digital ad revenue during the fourth quarter. The New York Times posted a 19% jump in digital ad sales. Digital revenue edged up 2% at Time Inc., the nation's largest magazine publisher. The Wall Street Journal also reported an uptick.

The lobby of the Tribune Tower in Chicago.
The lobby of the Tribune Tower in Chicago.

So what's going on at Tribune Publishing?

Well, the digital advertising business -- to use a metaphor that media executives enjoy -- is taking the shape of a barbell. On one side, as Mr. Griffin explained to analysts, are digital display ads bought using automated technology, also known as "programmatic."

The other side consists of big, custom "never been done before" ad programs.

The skinny bar connecting them is the "weak part." It represents digital display ads sold the old-fashioned way, with a salesperson and his or her staff completing multiple tasks without programmatic technology, which major marketers have come to prefer, or a custom component, which typically carries a larger price tag.

Tribune Publishing is trying to add weight to the bells, but the company is still in "early days," according to Mr. Griffin. "We're making lots of moves to increase our ability to monetize our inventory through programmatic," he said. "We're setting up private exchanges with agencies and retailers."