Newspapers' Worsening World

You probably wouldn't want to own a newspaper in Massachusetts. Or Florida, for that matter. That was the implication given by January sales data from two of the nation's major media companies on Tuesday.

Media General (NYSE: MEG  ) a Richmond-based newspaper publisher and television station owner, reported revenues for the first month of 2007 totaling $80.7 million, 4.7% higher year over year. However, excluding the contributions from four new NBC-affiliate television stations acquired in June, the company's total revenues for the month decreased by 3.5%.

The company, which publishes the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Winston-Salem Journal, and the Tampa Tribune, along with 22 daily community newspapers and 150 weekly newspapers and other publications, saw its total newspaper advertising revenues fall by $3.3 million, or 7.5%. Of its three metropolitan dailies, the Tampa Tribune was the hardest hit, recording a 16% drop in year-over-year revenues in January. Revenues for the Richmond and Winston-Salem papers declined 1.1% and 5.5%, respectively.

Revenues from the company's broadcast division increased 30.2%, including the new stations. Same-store revenues, excluding the four new stations, were up 1.2%. Media General's interactive media unit posted a 32.7% increase in revenues, but from a January 2006 base of just $2.1 million.

Up the road at New York Times (NYSE: NYT  ) , which is now a newspaper publisher with an Internet component, January revenues declined 2.1%. Its New England media group -- largely The Worcester Telegram-Gazette and The Boston Globe -- experienced a 9.7% reduction in January revenues. Advertising revenue at the company's namesake newspaper grew in January by 0.06%, while total revenue at the company fell 0.4%. Times has agreed to sell its nine television stations.

Media General and Times are in a league with such other newspaper publishers as Gannett (NYSE: GCI  ) , McClatchy (NYSE: MNI  ) , and Tribune (NYSE: TRB  ) , all of which have been hit hard in the past couple of years by falling advertising revenues and generally sliding circulation figures. Unfortunately, the end does not appear to be in sight, as younger generations -- both in the U.S. and abroad -- generally seek their news from Internet sources rather than newspapers or television. And while the publishers are all endeavoring to grow their Internet operations, those operations are relatively small in most cases, and there is little evidence that publishing newspapers and operating online sites are particularly synergistic.

And so Fools would probably be wise to maintain whatever newspaper-reading habits they've formed but forgo the temptation to own publishing stocks. With rare exceptions, it's difficult to see how money can be made through investments in the publishers.

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Fool contributor David Lee Smith does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned. He welcomes your comments or questions.


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