Newspapers caution

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After three years of largely disappointing Wall Street, newspaper companies found myriad ways to qualify their optimism about 2004. While nearly every speaker at last week's UBS and CSFB Media Week conferences said business will be better next year, all were conservative in their forecasts. Publishers across the board said ad revenue will be up in the mid-single-digit percentages and advertising rates will be up 3% to 4%.

"Clearly, with the experience of the last two to three years in the background, we want to under-promise and over-deliver," said New York Times Co. President-CEO Russell Lewis. The signs also pointed up at the end of 2002, but the recovery was cut short by the Iraq war and ad growth did not resume until after Labor Day, he said.

Most industry speakers continued to complain about "low visibility," with clients making last-minute media buys.

"Decisions are being made and unmade on short cycles," said Rich Zannino, chief operating officer of Dow Jones & Co. The publisher of The Wall Street Journal was more guarded than most, given its dependence on corporate advertising.

The Journal is seeing "intermittent signs of life" in B-to-B advertising, but the signs are not consistent, said Mr. Zannino. He noted ad linage at The Journal was down in November, but is expected to be up in the mid-single-digit percentages for December.

"This conference marks the end of what was an inconsistent, unpredictable year," said Gary Watson, president of Gannett Co.'s newspaper division. And he warned that 2004 improvement will not come overnight, but slowly "across several months or even quarters."

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