What's the Boston Globe Worth? A Buck, More or Less

Jun. 15, 2009 2:27 AM ETNYT
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Ken Doctor is an analyst with a ringside seat at the greatest story ever told about the global media industry. Fully employing more than 35 years of experience across a wide range of media, he’s become a go-to speaker, press source and consultant for legacy and emerging press around the world, talking about emerging Newsonomics. He writes regularly on the business of media change for Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab and for Capital New York. He also contributes to CNN Money and Politico. He is at work on his second book, following “Newsonomics: Twelve New Trends That Will Shape the News You Get,” which has been translated into Mandarin Chinese, Korean, Portuguese and Russian. All of his work can be found at his own Newsonomics.com website. In the past couple of years, he’s spoken to groups and worked with companies on four continents, from Berlin to Sydney, Moscow to Sao Paulo and Orlando to New York. Ken’s keynotes and engagements level with his audiences – and find the ways forward with company and industry strategy. The audiences – whether conferences, trade groups or staff groups, large or small – say they are both challenged and energized. The Newsonomics “practical forecasting” discipline is about fact and metrics, not journalistic religion nor habit, and derives from a trusted access across the legacy and digital news marketplace. A veteran of the digital media industry, he combines deep experience as an executive in strategy, revenue models and journalism. His experience includes 21 years with Knight Ridder, as well as time spent in the worlds of licensing, corporate development, business development and syndication.

The New York Times' David Carr asked six analysts one of the questions of the moment: just how much is the Boston Globe worth?

I liked how Fitch's Mike Simonton suggested that "buyer" may be a misnomer; "assumer of costs" might be truer.

Carr also reminds us that Jack Welch's indicated that he might be willing to round up some $500 million or so to buy the Globe just three years ago. 2006, though, now seems like another lifetime in the newspaper industry. How the Times could have used that kind of money to do battle with Rupert.

So, this week, as we try to separate the potential buyers from those who may just delight at seeing those books (how much of the $85 million in annual Globe "loss" is operating loss and how much "other"?, for instance), I'll amplify on my remarks to Carr.

Given the state of the world, the ad market, the newspaper market and vagaries of the online future, my best guesstimate of a price: a buck.

A buck essentially represents a gentleman’s agreement: I take a liability, headache and a distraction off your hands, says the buyer. I give you the great potential of the Globe brand, a top 25 news web site and improved ability to re-jigger the pieces, thanks to our new contracts and cost-cutting, says the Times.

A buck recognizes that there is so much unknown and such unchartable risk and reward here that only a token payment can even it out for both sides.

The Times gets shortchanged. It paid $1.1 billion for the paper just 16 years ago. It’s struggled to keep the Globe staffed through bad economic times. It’s subsidized losses. 

The new owner takes on great risk. It's highly unlikely any bank will finance a purchase, given the half-dozen bankruptcies we've seen over the last year in the industry. That means the new owner’s own money is immediately at risk. The new owner starts out behind, even with recent contract givebacks, given the trajectory of operating loss and a continuing 30% decline in year-over-year advertising revenue. Forget the purchase price; how many millions will I have to sink in within the next year?

The potential upsides include buying an ad-based franchise at the bottom of a recession and being able to be a shiny newly painted boat in a rising economic sea; 2010  ad numbers can hardly help to be an improvement over this year’s. The feds will soon be paying people to buy cars, and houses will start to sell again; related advertising will recover a bit. 2010, I'm coming to believe, will offer a breather to the beleaguered industry. Yes, the structural changes of ad spending and reading will continue, but a small ad bounce will help dramatically downsized companies in the next calendar year. That may only stop the gasping temporarily, but breath is breath.

The potential downsides include inheriting a heavy-on-cost business model at a time when competitors from Huffington Post to Politico to local start-ups to emerging online initiatives of local broadcasters threaten to do further damage to daily newspapers. In the fact, the new business models we're seeing from the start-ups -- small, editor-heavy, full-time staffs, growing legions of part-time reporters, columnists and bloggers, regional aggregation models -- stand far distant from the model of a paper like the Globe. If you truly believe that Boston needs a vibrant, public service-oriented news source, is assuming Globe ownership the place you want to start? 

One other data point: The most recent sale of a metro newspaper occurred a continent apart. The San Diego Union Tribune, a deeply mediocre newspaper in a widely monied metro area, was once the envy of every major news publisher.

Would-be buyers wined and dined the Copley family, the long-time owners. The Union-Tribune value, as little as a decade ago: at least a half a billion dollars. After languishing on the market for months, the paper finally sold in March, for a reported $50 million – and that price seemed to be based on some lucrative real estate that went along with the deal.

The Globe’s real estate is less desirable. Its glorious history and brand are balanced out by its by its cost structure and the difficulty of turning quickly around a 137-year-old steamship.

Now, an announced price may well vary from a simple dollar; it would be better optics for the Times. For instance, the new owner could put more dollars into the buy, if the Times agrees to keep some of the current Globe pension obligations, for instance. There are all kinds of content, advertising and technology relationships that could be built into a new Times/Globe relationship, with values to be computed. The Guild and other unions, as in the recently done deal for Maine Newspapers,  may be willing to exchange further givebacks in exchange for equity, lowering costs enough to justify a buyer putting more money up front. Other possibilities abound.

Add, subtract, multiply, divide, though: the math still comes out pretty much to a buck.

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