First published at Nieman Journalism Lab
The Washington Post Company has been much in the news recently, but not because of its flagship paper. It’s making news around its other holdings. It has shed Newsweek, staunching a $30 million annual bleed. More importantly to the company’s finances, its Kaplan “subsidiary” has been much in the spotlight, under investigation by the feds, along with other for-profit educators, for fraud around student loans. Those inquiries have rocked The Washington Post Co.’s share price, sending it to a year-to-date low.
The Post’s case has also refocused public attention on how much the company is dependent on Kaplan revenues. Those revenues now amount to 62 percent of revenues, and 67 percent of profits. It became clear to even those who hadn’t been watching closely that the Post was more an education company than a newspaper one, though the family ownership of the Grahams clearly intend to use that positioning to protect and sustain the flagship paper.
The Post case is not an isolated one. Fewer news companies are, well, “news” companies in the way we used to think of them. More news operations find themselves within larger enterprises these days, and I believe that will be a continuing trend. It could be good for journalism — buffering news operations in times of changing business models — or it could be bad for journalism, as companies whose values don’t include the “without fear or favor” gene increasingly house journalists. That push and pull will play out dramatically over the next five years.
Let’s look, though, at the changing newsonomics of the companies that own large news enterprises.
Here’s a chart of selected companies, showing what approximate (revenue definitions vary significantly company to company) percentage of their overall annual revenues are derived from news:
News Corp.: 19 percent (newspapers and information services); 31 percent (newspapers and broadcast)
Gannett: 94.3 percent (newspapers and broadcast)
New York Times: 93 percent (newspapers and broadcast)
Washington Post: 21 percent (newspapers and broadcast)
Thomson Reuters: 2.3 percent (Media segment)
Bloomberg: <15 percent (non-terminal media businesses)
AP: 100 percent (newspapers and broadcast)
McClatchy: 100 percent (newspapers and broadcast)
Disney (ABC News): <14 percent (broadcast)
Guardian Media Group: 46 percent (newspapers)
The non-news revenues may be a surprise, but here’s one further fact to ponder: News, over the past several years, has continued to decline in its percentage contribution to most diversified companies. Given all the trends we know, it will continue to do so. Movies, cable, satellite, and even broadcasting all have challenges, structural and cyclical, but overall are all doing better than print and text revenues.
News Corp., the largest company by news revenue in the world with publications on three continents, is a great example. After all, although it is eponymously named, it is not really a “news company.” With only one in five of its overall dollars coming directly from traditional news, it’s much more dependent on the success of the latest Ben Stiller comedy or the fortunes of a blockbuster than on the digital advertising growth of The Wall Street Journal or the paid-content successes — or failures — of The Times of London. These matter, of course, but let’s consider the context.
In February, I wrote about the “Avatar Advantage” that News Corp.’s Wall Street Journal held in its increasingly head-to-head battle with The New York Times. At that point, Avatar had brought in $2 billion in gross receipts for News Corp., whose 20th Century Fox produced and distributed the movie. Now that number has grown by $750 million, to $2.75 billion in total. News Corp. shares that revenue with lots of hands, but what it keeps will make an impressive difference to its bottom line — and to what it can pour into The Wall Street Journal, as CEO Rupert Murdoch desires.
Compare that financial flexibility with the Times, and it’s night and day. The Times Co.’s total 2009 revenues: $2.4 billion, less than Avatar itself has produced. The Times is all but a newspaper pure play, deriving about 5.5 percent of its revenue from non-news Internet businesses, like About.com, after shedding TV and radio stations and its share of the Boston Red Sox.
It may be a one-of-a-kind pure play, in that it is the leading standalone news site and reaches vast audiences globally. Yet its pure-play nature can feel like a noose, which was tightening in the depth of the recession and only feels a lot looser now. The Times’ planned paid-content metering system, for instance, is a nervous-making strategy for a company with relatively little margin of error. Compare that to the revenue trajectories that News Corp.’s London papers may see after their paywalls have been in place for a year. Whatever the results, they’ll have de minimis impact to News Corp. fortunes.
Likewise, McClatchy — another newspaper pure play, like MediaNews, A.H. Belo, Lee, and a few others — is now betting wholly on newspapers and their torturous transition to digital.
While Gannett is heavily dependent on print newspapers, in the U.S. and UK, it has been benefited by the 13 percent of its revenues that come from broadcast. Broadcast revenues — buoyed by Olympics and election-year advertising — were up 18.6 percent for the first half of 2010, while newspapers were down 6.5 percent for Gannett. Broadcast may be a largely mature medium, too, but for the print news companies that haven’t jettisoned properties gained in an earlier foray into broadcast diversification, it has provided some balm. In addition to Gannett, Tribune, MediaGeneral and Scripps are among those holding on to broadcast properties.
For the bigger companies, the consequences are more nuanced. I call these large, now globally oriented (in news coverage, in audience reach and, coming, in advertising sales) The Digital Dozen, twelve-plus companies that are trying to harness the real scale value of digital distribution.
The Digital Dozen’s Thomson Reuters is a great example. Until 2007, Reuters was a standalone, a 160-year-old information and news services company news service struggling with its own business models in this changing world. Its three-year old merger with financial services giant Thomson now provides a greater insulation of its news operations, even as those operations contribute less than a tenth of TR’s annual revenue. That kind of insulation can be a good thing, both as TR figures out how to better synergize its news and business lines (a complex work-in-progress) and to allow investment in news products and staffing, [clarification added] even as news revenues find tough sledding. Meanwhile, its main competitor, AP, may have a strong commercial business (broadcast and print) worldwide — but it’s a news business, with no other revenue lines to provide breathing room..
National broadcast news, too, has seen rapid change, and much staff reduction in the past few years. GE, one behemoth of a diversified company, is turning over the NBC News operation to another giant, Comcast. ABC News is found within the major entertainment conglomerate Disney.
Meanwhile, Bloomberg — getting more than eight out of 10 of its dollars via the terminal rental business — is moving aggressively to build a greater news brand; witness the Business Week acquisition, and its push into government news coverage, formally announcing the hiring of 100 journalists for its Bloomberg Government new business unit. Non-news revenue — largely meaning non-advertising dependence — is what may increasingly separate “news” companies going forward. So we see the Guardian Media Group selling off its regional newspapers to focus, as its annual report proudly announces, on “a strong portfolio [of non-news companies and investments] to support our journalism.]
Journalism must be fed — but inky hands will be doing less and less of the feeding.