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The Good (New York) Times and the Tribune

By David Smith – Updated Apr 5, 2017 at 5:18PM

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When Times and Tribune reported results this week, the two headed in different directions.

Two big, old-line media companies that had been trudging along almost in lockstep headed off in different directions this week when it came to their quarterly results. Tribune (NYSE:TRB) recorded that earnings fell, while New York Times (NYSE:NYT) demonstrated that even a Gray Lady can occasionally -- and perhaps temporarily -- regain her footing in the midst of a fall.

New York Times earnings
For New York Times, publisher of its namesake newspaper as well as The Boston Globe and a number of regional newspapers, earnings rose 6.7% to $13.4 million, compared with $12.6 million last year. The company's EPS from continuing operations came in at a dime, versus $0.06 last year.

It appears that the company benefited from improved circulation revenue and an unexpectedly good advertising performance relative to its competitors. The results were achieved amid sloppy going for the newspaper industry, and resulted in revenue that was up 2% to $754.4 million.

CEO Janet Robinson noted, "Revenues benefited from new products, both in print and online. National advertising grew significantly, up 10.9%, as a result of improvement in categories such as entertainment, international fashion, and corporate. Circulation revenues rose 3.9%."

Robinson has lots of reasons to crow. Last week, Morgan Stanley (NYSE:MS) portfolio manager Hassan Elmasry, who had accumulated about 7.25% of Times' shares -- and had complained constantly and bitterly about the company's performance -- threw in the towel and sold his shares. Elmasry had been especially vocal about wanting to see an end to the company's dual-class share structure, which guarantees that control of the company will remain firmly with the Ochs-Sulzberger family. Judging by the stock's 9.8% rebound following the earnings release, shareholders see something in New York Times that Elmasry didn't.

Tribune earnings
For Tribune, which publishes its namesake Chicago newspaper along with the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, and the Baltimore Sun and owns a couple of dozen television stations, revenue slid 4.1% to $1.28 billion. Third-quarter net income fell 7% to $152.8 million, or $1.22 a share, from last year's $164.3 million (before preferred dividends), or $0.65 per common share. The per-share increase in the face of lower net-income results comes from the company slicing its shares outstanding in half and benefiting from its discontinued operations.

You wouldn't get the impression that all wasn't rosy at the company from the comments of CEO Dennis FitzSimons: "Our third-quarter results reflect a combination of better revenue trends, strong expense controls, and an increase in equity income ... We are also encouraged by positive national advertising trends, led by improved Tribune Media Net sales."

In reality, the company's advertising revenue was down 9% in the quarter. Leading the slide were classified ad sales, which fell 18% because of sinking real estate and auto-related ad revenues.

Tribune expects to go private during the current quarter in an $8.2 billion buyout led by Chicago real estate investor Sam Zell. But with the company's shares having closed at $28.18 on Wednesday, about 17% below the agreed-to $34 transaction price, there are obviously questions about whether or not the deal will get done.

The company announced today that it is selling two small Connecticut newspapers, The Advocate in Stamford and Greenwich Time. The two papers -- the smallest of Tribune's 11 publishing properties -- will apparently fetch about $62.4 million from Hearst.

The two dailies -- which have a combined circulation of about 39,000 -- were supposed to go to Gannett (NYSE:GCI) earlier in the year. That sale was blocked by a court order after a union representing The Advocate's reporters had maintained that Gannett did not intend to abide by its contract with the paper.

A tale of two papers
It's rather refreshing to be able to talk about an earnings improvement at New York Times. However, advertising revenues in the industry continue to decrease, and there is really no indication of when they'll begin coming back. In fact, Tribune's decline follows reduced earnings at other publishers such as McClatchy (NYSE:MNI) and Gannett. As such, I'd rather my Foolish friends curl up with the products produced by the publishing companies and avoid acquiring their shares.

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Fool contributor David Lee Smith remains an avid newspaper reader, but doesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned. He does welcome your questions or comments. The Fool has a disclosure policy that's worth a read.     

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