tronc Inc. (NASDAQ: TRNC) has held its own so far in 2017 as its shares were last seen up about 6% year to date. Now tronc’s investors and its media partners have an earnings report to focus on. It is no secret that the digital migration of media has been an industrywide challenge for every single company in the media sector. That being said, some areas continue to show strength. There are also some areas that seem to be able to improve further after the company’s earnings report.
When evaluating tronc, it is important to recognize just how wide its grasp is. The company operates over 160 titles in nine of the largest U.S. markets, and the company’s reach is currently an audience of about 57 million people (up 16% from the prior-year quarter). The company’s digital-only subscribers figure was up 82% year over year and up 17% sequentially to 160,000.
Before getting into the quarterly report, it is important to keep in mind that a possible merger between tronc (formerly Tribune Publishing) and Gannett Co. Inc. (NYSE: GCI) was called off in November. That would signal that some of the improvements took place even during what can be a difficult time when management may have been focused on a merger. The stocks of tronc and Gannett might have drifted out of what would have been a normal trajectory by merger talks. Now investors can focus on each company’s own results.
For the full year 2016, tronc’s net income increased by over $9 million from 2015, and earnings per share increased by $0.30 while adjusted EBITDA increased by $23 million. Total operating expenses were down by $95 million, and its adjusted total operating expenses were $123 million lower than in 2015.
tronc’s full-year guidance for 2017 was for total revenues to remain in a range of $1.57 billion to $1.60 billion and for adjusted EBITDA between $185 million to $195 million.
The company announced with earnings that digital media executive Timothy P. Knight has been appointed as president of tronc’s digital content and commerce division, troncX, effective February 23, 2017. Knight was shown to be a co-founder of the digital business that created Cars.com and Apartments.com.
tronc realigned into two groups in 2016, as troncM and troncX. The troncM is the media groups excluding digital revenues and related expenses (except digital subscription revenues when bundled with a print subscription). The troncX unit includes all digital revenues and related expenses of the company from local websites and mobile applications, digital-only subscriptions, Tribune Content Agency, ForSaleByOwner.com and Motiv8.
After looking over the revenue trends, there are still some bright spots. The company said of revenues in the fourth quarter by segment:
Total Revenues for troncM for the quarter were $367 million or a decrease of 8.0% compared to the fourth quarter of 2015. Advertising revenue declined by 16.0% which was partially offset by a 4.9% increase in circulation revenues.
Total Revenues for troncX for the fourth quarter of 2016 were $60 million, up 1% from prior-year quarter. Advertising revenues for troncX declined by 3.3% while content revenues, which includes digital only subscriptions and content syndication, increased by 21.2%.
As you have heard elsewhere, cash is king, even in media. tronc showed that its net cash from operating activities was $30 million in the fourth quarter and $86 million for the 12 months ended December 25, 2016. Its capital spending was $21 million for the full year 2016, and the company’s debt and pension liabilities were reduced by $26 million during 2016 as well. tronc’s total cash increased by $158 million during 2016 to end the year at $198 million.
tronc shares may seem as though they have hardly moved on the heels of its earnings announcement. Its stock was up less than 2% at $14.86 midday, but note that the stock did actually trade above $15.50 briefly early in the morning. tronc’s market cap is $535 million, and its stock has a 52-week trading range of $8.76 to $17.93.
Gannett gave an earnings report and some preliminary guidance earlier in February, which should have signaled that many parts of the business are improving, even if there are some continued challenges for the media landscape as the media world keeps migrating to digital.
Coming into earnings, Gannett’s stock was down about 10% at that time in 2017. The post-earnings reaction initially took shares up more than 7% to $9.32, but they were most recently seen at $8.85. Gannett’s market cap is now $1.03 billion, and the stock has a 52-week trading range of $7.30 to $17.72.
tronc CEO Justin Dearborn said of the quarter:
2016 was a transitional year for our company and despite unexpected distractions we delivered strong financial results for the full year of 2016, including total revenues of $1.61 billion, and Adjusted EBITDA of $181 million, which was well ahead of our November guidance and consistent with our January year-end guidance update. We continued to make progress in growing our digital audience, with our average monthly unique visitors in the fourth quarter of 2016 up 16% year-over-year and our total paid all access subscribers reaching just under a million at the end of 2016. With a focused strategy and strong balance sheet in place, we believe we are well-positioned to further develop our business transformation in 2017.