What to expect at next week's big media investors' conference & who will be missing

The 40th annual UBS media conference will kick off Monday in New York with one of its regulars missing. The New York Times Co. has opted not to present this year.

One might guess that has to do with newly installed CEO Mark Thompson, and one would be right. But the issue is his newness, according to the Times, not the ongoing investigations of the Jimmy Savile sex scandal at the BBC and whether Thompson, as director general, should have been more proactive in dealing with it.

"We haven't attended any (investor relations) conferences this year except the ones we have hosted in our offices," Times senior vice president Robert Christie wrote me in an e-mail. "We were waiting to hire a new CEO. Now that Mark arrived a few weeks ago, we thought it premature to introduce him to investors at the UBS conference. We will roll him out in 2013."

I take that explanation at face value. However, if the company had been contemplating a first public appearance for Thompson at the event, where the questioning tends to be gentle and companies can use their allotted time as they wish, the BBC troubles probably put the kibosh on that.

For a second opinion, I called Ed Atorino of Benchmark Co., a veteran (and outspoken) media analyst. He said that the Times's absence makes sense. "They haven't got much to say right now. The new guy has hardly found his office yet. [Chairman] Arthur Sulzberger doesn't like to stand up in front of a crowd of investors. And some wise guy might ask about Britain."

UBS claims the conference, which includes telecommunications, cable and some entertainment companies, is the oldest continuously held annual investors' meeting. I'm not sure how many years in a row the Times Co. has presented. They have been on every program since I started attending in 2001.

Janet Robinson led the Times' presenting team last year, two weeks before she was fired as CEO.

As Atorino suggests, the company's story to investors needs some major retuning. Despite ongoing success with digital subscriptions, the Times reported a net loss for the third quarter a month ago. Its shares tumbled in value more than 20 percent in a single day.

With the Times on the sidelines, only four newspaper companies will be on the UBS program: Gannett, the Washington Post, Scripps and McClatchy. That compares to a dozen at the start of the century. Pulitzer, Knight Ridder, Dow Jones, Tribune and Media General have either been merged or taken private or have sold their newspapers in the years since, and several smaller companies no longer participate.

Despite disappointing financial results like the continuing industry ad revenue losses I reported earlier this month, most of the public newspaper companies are trading at roughly the same price as a year ago.

That suggests investors are more bullish than three or four years ago that the companies will survive and think that efforts to build new revenue streams hold promise. Still they will be looking for a convincing story that 2013 results will be better.

This year, as in previous editions, the conference will offer a number of advertising forecasts for the coming year and presentations by three large publicly traded ad agencies.

Another focus, building for several years now, is whether the wildly profitable cable television industry can stay that way as more users shift to Internet consumption of entertainment shows, fast forwarding through ads.


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