February 25, 2016

With a windfall from its sale of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, other cash on hand and borrowing, New Media Investment Group could spend as much as $360 million on acquiring small newspapers by the end of the year.

CEO Michael Reed told analysts in a fourth-quarter earnings call that the company will only pay that much if deal terms are right. In two years, it has made 12 acquisitions for $640 million and now has 124 daily papers, the most owned by any chain.

Year-to-year comparisons are skewed by the Las Vegas transaction and income at added properties. But even on an apples-to-apples (so-called same-store) basis, the company did somewhat better in the last quarter of 2015 than other newspaper companies which had already reported fourth-quarter results.

New Media did experience the same sort of print advertising losses as others — 10.5 percent year-to-year. Comparable revenues overall declined 5.9 percent. But the company benefits by imposing cost controls and centralized functions at the papers it acquires and is growing its digital marketing services business, Propel — up 68 percent compared to the quarter a year ago on a same-store basis.

Recent acquisitions include the Erie Times-News, a family-owned paper with strong penetration of its market, and Dolan Company, which publishes specialized business papers and has 46,000 paid subscribers.

As a Wednesday Wall Street Journal story noted, New Media is a public company that’s managed and bankrolled by Fortress Investment Group, a very large private equity firm.

Part of New Media’s pitch to investors is that it pays an unusually high dividend — $1.29 for the full year of 2015. On a stock trading around $16, that works out to around 8 percent.

And because the company was built from the 2013 bankruptcy of its original GateHouse papers, it has large carry-forward tax losses and presently pays no tax on earnings.

New Investment stock has done better than that of most newspaper companies. It was trading up 4.5 percent midday, but is still down roughly 35 percent from a year ago. Some commentators have doubted whether New Media’s strategy will work as well at bigger papers it bought in Columbus and Providence as it has with earlier additions of smaller papers.

In the conference call with analysts, Reed argued that the market undervalues New Media. The newspaper sector, he said, is “out-of-favor and fragmented,” and that leads to New Media being “misunderstood.”

As he told me on background earlier, Reid said that the company will be winding down what was a management contract to “a transitional services agreement” in Las Vegas now that the family of casino mogul Sheldon Adelson has installed its own publisher and editor.

There was no discussion of the widely-covered editorial turmoil at the Review-Journal in which the newsroom was in revolt over a secret sale to Adelson and an apparent attempt to use reporters to investigate a judge with whom the billionaire was at odds.

What matters to investors is that the sale produced a $54 million infusion of cash — a 69 percent gain for the six months the company held the property after acquiring Stephens Media. And any remaining issues in Las Vegas are no longer New Media’s problem.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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