Newspaper publishers are in turmoil as consumers ditch print media for digital media. In response, many publishers are changing their business models to compete both in print and digital spaces, while cutting costs to the bone. This transition has led to uncertainty in the newspaper industry, creating interesting opportunities for investors in many stocks. The most intriguing newspaper stocks include New York Times Co (NYSE:NYT), Gannett Co. (NYSE:GCI), and Lee Enterprises, Incorporated (NYSE:LEE).
New York Times Co
New York Times Co undertook a series of divestitures over the past few years that allows it to focus on its core newspapers going forward. In 2011, the company shed Regional Media Group, which consisted of 16 regional newspapers along with other non-core publications. In 2012, the company sold its stake in Fenway Sports Group, which owns the Boston Red Sox and Liverpool Football Club, among other sports-related assets. Later in 2012, it sold its stake in Indeed.com, a job portal. Finally, in 2013, the company sold The Boston Globe and other New England media assets. These divestitures raised cash and enabled management to refocus on The New York Times and its related publications.
The result is a streamlined company that's growing digital revenue and subscribers at a double-digit pace. In August, The New York Times added its millionth digital-only subscriber, and the company believes that no other news organization comes close to matching this figure. The Times boasts another 1.1 million print-and-digital subscribers. Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet noted, "In total, we have more subscribers than at any time in our 164-year history."
At 23 times analysts' 2016 earnings estimate, the stock is not a deep value opportunity. However, with plans to double its digital revenue to $800 million by 2020, The New York Times is leading its newsprint peers in the digital transition. Digital subscribers may become more valuable in the future as publications find new ways to monetize subscriptions, and New York Times Co stockholders will be the first to benefit when these innovations come to fruition.
Gannett has also taken steps to focus on its core news offering. The company spun out of its corporate parent and is now a print-focused business with little debt. Gannett's crown jewel, USA Today, is the No. 1 paper in the nation by circulation. Its daily circulation of 4 million and Sunday circulation of 3.8 million beats even The New York Times, according to Alliance for Audited Media. But most of the company's value comes from the 111 daily newspapers and 400 non-daily publications serving small- and medium-sized markets across the U.S. and U.K.
Shortly after the spinoff, Gannett announced its intention to double down on local newspapers. CEO Robert Dickey says the company is "aggressively pursuing" opportunities in markets with 1 million to 3 million potential subscribers. Management is already executing its growth strategy; Gannett recently announced that it will acquire Journal Media Group for $280 million. "This transaction is an excellent first step in the industry consolidation strategy we have communicated to our shareholders and is a good example of the value-creating opportunities we believe are available," Dickey explained.
With hundreds of small-town newspapers in decline across the U.S., the newspaper industry is ripe for consolidation. Gannett's stellar balance sheet positions it to take the lead in this effort. A series of disciplined acquisitions could add significant value to shareholders even in a declining industry. Investors who think local newspapers will still add value in 10 or 15 years may want to take a closer look at Gannett.
One investor who thinks local newspapers still add value is none other than the Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffett. In March 2012, Buffett's holding company announced a roughly 3% stake in Lee's equity, while rumors circulated that he also bought a significant chunk of its debt.
Although Buffett has since sold most of his equity stake in Lee, he remains bullish on companies that fit Lee's profile. In his 2012 letter to shareholders, Buffett said he thought "papers delivering comprehensive and reliable information to tightly bound communities and a sensible Internet strategy will remain viable for a long time."
Lee Enterprises fits the bill. The company's 51 daily papers and 39 Sunday papers often enjoy local monopolies in small and midsize markets. A 2014 study conducted in 11 selected markets found that Lee's publications reached 78% of all adults over a one-week period. The information contained in Lee's publications, which often focus on local sporting events and society, are best delivered by local news organizations even as the news transitions to the Internet. That could give local papers a stickier customer base than the stock market expects -- giving shareholders a tidy profit.