Continued rough sledding ahead for newspapers

A look at fourth-quarter 2009 financial results from five of the 10 publicly owned U.S. newspaper companies that have reported so far shows that “it’s clear the industry as a whole is still in deep trouble, with no strong indication that better days are ahead,” says a Nieman Journalism Lab report.

The report says that in Q4 2009 the industry “saw its 14th consecutive advertising revenue decline; the last nine of those quarters were double-digit declines.” And nothing indicates that January, typically a bad month for revenue, is looking any better.

The report examines the five publishers individually: Gannett, New York Times Co., Lee Enterprises, Media General and McClatchy Co.

At McClatchy, it finds strong online revenue growth comparatively, but scoffs at CEO Gary Pruitt’s claim that expectations of revenue declines in the low- to mid-teens percentage range in January indicate a recovery. “In other words, McClatchy expects the Q4 decline of 20.5 percent to be followed in Q1 2010 by a decline of somewhat less than 15 percent, and considers that to be an ‘improving advertising trend.'”

In another problem area, “Besides nearly $2 billion in long-term debt, McClatchy also disclosed that at year-end, its pension plans were underfunded by $494 million in the ‘qualified’ plan (their standard defined benefit plan, which is frozen), and another $100 million in the non-qualified supplemental executive-level plan. This accumulation of future obligations makes McClatchy one of the most-leveraged publishers out there.”

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