The traditional newspaper business in the U.S. will continue its decline, according to Moody’s Investor Services. One of the few points of relief will be the ability to cut costs. Moody’s believes this is the only way to possibly offset more drops in both revenue and EBITDA
Moody’s pessimism is rooted in one trend, essentially. This is that the pace at which print advertising continues to fall cannot be made up by a transition to digital revenue, and cost cuts may not be rapid enough to close the gap of falling revenue, either. Moody’s expects industry EBITDA to drop by 7% to 10% through mid-2018
And, non-news related media will take more and more share from the newspaper industry. Alina Khavulya, Vice President and Senior Analyst at Moody’s, wrote in a research note:
Technology-driven shifts in consumer reading habits keep hurting newspapers, and competition for advertisers continues to rise from search engines, social media and digital video.
One saving grace for the newspaper industry is that it has aggressively entered the digital video business and virtually every local paper puts a major emphasis on video content.
Some of the large newspaper chains, particularly Gannett (NYSE: GCI) and tronc (NASDAQ: TRNC) may be able to use M&A to move out of the revenue attrition bind. Each is large enough to afford the purchase of other media assets and to take out costs as part of expense consolidations. Moody’s pointed out:
Gannett, for example, made several acquisitions in 2016, including Journal Media Group for $261 million, assets of the North Jersey Media Group for $39 Million, and ReachLocal for $163 million. While acquisitions increased Gannett’s scale, its organic revenue has actually declined at a rate of 8% to 10% annually.
So, while M&A many be a solution, it is not a panacea.
tronc has nearly $200 million cash on its balance sheet, some of it put in by chairman Michael Ferro who last February bought 5.2 million of newly issued shares for $44.4 million. tronc considered a buyout of Us Weekly for a rumored price just shy of $100 million. tronc dropped out of the bidding and Us Weekly went to American Media. Most outsiders believe that Ferro is still in the market for other media properties.
Gannett showed its appetite for M&A last year when it offered to buy tronc. The deal did not close. However, Gannett management continues to shop for properties, at least according to industry observers.
Gannett and tronc are among the few national publishers who have the capital, either in stock or cash, to make relatively large acquisitions. One of the other huge U.S. chains, McClatchy (NYSE: MNI) had $829 million in long-term debt at the end of 2016. Its operating income for the year was $22 million on revenue of $977 million. Debt service was $83 million which along with other charges drove a net loss of $34 million
The Moody’s note closes with this observation:
The newspaper industry will also keep reducing costs by low-to-mid single-digit percentages through mid-2018 to support weakening earnings. Publishers will continue cutting production and distribution costs associated with print, eliminating local coverage of national or regional issues in favor of single content across markets.
However, the credit rating agency did not say the entire industry is out of options.