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Thursday, August 10, 2017
New St. Augustine Record Owner, GateHouse's "Efficiency" Proclivities Raise Eyebrows (United Media Guild)
New Media/GateHouse keeps buying and diminishing newspapers
“We are so proud of the role our publications play within the communities they serve as the dominant sources of comprehensive high quality local news and information,” Reed read from his script. “These local brands are the cornerstone to our organic growth strategy allowing us to leverage our strong community standing in ties, our highly recognized brands, and our large in market local sales force, which is helping us further expand our digital and service offerings for small businesses.”
Of course, Reed didn’t mention the round after round of cuts the Herald-Tribune newsroom has suffered under New Media ownership and GateHouse Media management. Nor did he mention that the Herald-Tribune was an award-winning newspaper long before New Media bought it and began the wholesale bloodletting of journalists.
Reed addressed that payroll slashing with typical CEOSpeak: “Subsequent to the quarter close, we have implemented a cost reduction program that is expected to reduce expenses over $3 million in the first quarter of 2017 and over $27 million for the full year of 2017.”
In other words, expect the layoffs to just keep coming. Expect to see fewer and fewer reporters working in the communities and less and less reporting on topics vital to the residents.
Here are some other highlights:
For a change, Reed didn’t claim that New Media stock is undervalued by Wall Street. Its share price has been hovering in the $15 to $16 range, a far cry from the $40 or more some experts predicted for the stock when it was first issued.
Reed talked up the increased New Media dividend ($0.35 this time around), which is funded by the cash flow from local newspaper properties. Rather than reinvest in its news-gathering operations and reader retention, the company bleeds profits from these properties through round after round of cost reduction.
The company is still banking heavily on circulation revenue. While print circulation continues to plummet across the chain, the company offsets that with price increases and paid digital subscriptions. That is not a sustainable model, particularly given the dramatic newsroom reductions across the chain. People won’t keep paying more for less. They just won’t. Also, newspaper reader demographics skew old. Younger people are getting the information in other places.
Reed noted the company suffered massive declines in print advertising, led by the industry-wide decline in “pre-print” advertising from major retailers and classified advertising. While that decline may slow in the years ahead, Reed admitted that it won’t reverse.
He once against talked up “organic growth” in the company, but this time he didn’t put a timeline on it. Instead Reed stressed the diversification of revenues, including growth in digital ad sales, Propel Marketing, commercial printing and event presentation.
Reed also talked up the company’s expanding BridgeTower Media group of business publications. Those properties aren’t subject to the steep retail advertising declines that imperil the newspaper business.
Fortress Investment Group, now owned by Japan’s Softbank, will continue reaping huge external management fees from New Media/GateHouse for as long as company lasts. Such is the reward for raising capital for expansion. Fortress earned $19.4 million in compensation last year from New Media after raking in $39.7 million the year before.
Fortress owns about 1 percent stake of the New Media stock, so it is not overly concerned about the stock price tanking. And yet Fortress employs Reed as the New Media CEO, raising reasonable questions about his commitment to producing shareholder value. (Although it should be noted that Reed has bought 60,000 shares of the stock the past few months at a cost of nearly $800,000)
New Media shareholders share UMG’s concerns about GateHouse management
GateHouse Media’s buying and slashing spree has led to the wholesale deterioration of once-great newspaper properties.
The United Media Guild sees this damage daily while representing members at the Peoria Journal Star, State Journal-Register of Springfield, Rockford Register Star, Pekin Daily Times and Freeport Journal Standard.
Major shareholders in GateHouse’s parent company, New Media Investment Group, are taking note. They voted overwhelmingly in favor of the UMG’s non-binding proposal for an annual election of directors instead of staggered elections.
Shareholders also withheld votes for New Media Investment Group board chairman Wes Edens by a 2-to-1 margin, signaling considerable unrest.
UMG president Jeff Gordon presented the good governance proposal at New Media’s annual shareholders meeting in suburban Rochester, N.Y., May 25. UMG business representative Shannon Duffy and NewsGuild-CWA sector representative Tammy Turnbull also attended the meeting.
Earlier in the month NewsGuild-CWA supported this proposal with letters to top New Media shareholders, seeking to create a more responsive board.
In its letter to shareholders, TNG-CWA noted that: “At a time when newspaper publishers and employees must work together to promote the value of real news and find revenue solutions in a distressed industry, New Media has demoralized its workforce with an eternal wage freeze (up to a decade at some properties), constant layoffs and a more hostile negotiating stance at NewsGuild-represented units. In our opinion, cost-cutting through headcount reductions has reached the point of negative returns.”
While the cuts maximized cash flow to pay stock dividends and fund further acquisitions, it also undermined the whole enterprise. Circulation is down, print advertising is way down and the gains in digital advertising and the Propel Marketing initiative haven’t offset that decline.
Not only has the company lost great journalists to layoffs and voluntary departures, it has also churned salespersons, advertising managers, publishers, regional executives and even national-level managers.
Against the backdrop, UMG’s proposal won in a landslide, 35 million to 7.2 million. Edens, a principal in Fortress Investment Group, received 14.3 million votes “for” and had 28 million votes withheld.
The strategy has been less great for shareholders, producing healthy dividends but driving down the stock price. After topping $25 per share back in March, 2015, New Media stock was trading at about $13 on May 31.
Analysts began souring on New Media stock last year, changing “buy” ratings to “hold” or “sell”. Earlier in May, New Media’s board of directors authorized a $100 million stock buyback during the next year to shore up the stock’s price.
Hence the shareholder interest in creating a board of directors more aligned with their interests rather than the interests of Fortress. Although the UMG proposal was non-binding, the Council of Institutional Investors notes that 75 percent of majority-supported proposals are implemented withing three years.
“CII’s corporate governance policies state that in uncontested elections, directors should be elected by majority vote; directors who fail to receive a majority support should step down from the board and not be reappointed,” it notes on its website.
Edens did not attend the shareholders meeting. Gordon, Duffy and Turnbull engaged New Media CEO Michael Reed in an informal discussion after the brief shareholders meeting. Reed listened to the Guild’s concerns about the state of his newsrooms and expressed his own concerns about the negative impact of the Guild’s community and corporate campaigns.
Almost every Guild contract at GateHouse-operated newspapers is currently open with little to no progress being made in negotiations. As a result, TNG-CWA locals in that fight have joined forces in a multi-faceted initiative against the company that includes joint mobilization, joint bargaining strategies, community campaigns, organizing efforts at unrepresented newspapers and a broader corporate campaign with shareholder outreach.