February 26, 2015

Acquisitive New Media Investment Group reported its fourth quarter results today and tallied the score on $538 million spent buying newspapers over the last year and a half.

The company’s business plan calls for $1 billion in acquisitions over three years, so more of the same is on the way.

New Media also increased its quarterly dividend which yields investors 4 to 5 percent annually. And the company’s shares were up more 6 percent for the day and nearly 50 percent in the last six months.

Besides offering the generous dividend, New Media targets smaller papers that have been less affected by digital competition than metros.  After the acquisition of Stephens Media, announced a week ago, is completed in March, the largest circulation titles in its roster of 125 dailies will be the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the Sarasota Herald Tribune and the Providence Journal.

Year-to-year comparisons are not entirely meaningful given the fast pace of acquisitions.  But borrowing a phrase from retail chains, the company reported “same store” revenues for the quarter were up 1.2 percent compared to a year ago — a better performance than that of other public newspaper companies.

Classified revenues, led by obituaries and legal notices were down for the year but nearly even for the quarter as the economy and auto sales.  The company also described its pre-print insert business, down less than 1 percent, as stable.

When the Stephens transaction closes, New Media papers will have a combined Sunday print circulation of 1.9 million copies.

Net income for the quarter was $11.5 million on revenues of $955 million, a margin of 1.2 percent.  For the full year it had a net loss of $3.2 million.

Beyond its unusual expansion strategy, New Media is following a relatively standard playbook.  It aggressively controls costs with a design center in Austin doing page layouts and some copy editing for the entire chain.  It also is investing in the growth of a new and fast-growing digital marketing service arm (Propel).

When it acquires smaller chains like Halifax Media or individual papers like Foster’s Daily Democrat in Dover, N.H., that were doing neither, CEO Mike Reed explained in a conference call with analysts, New Media can improve operating results relatively quickly.

The company incorporates the former Gatehouse Media and is under the wing of investment giant Fortress.  Its acquisitions have included the former local groups of the New York Times Co.(sold earlier to Halifax) and Dow Jones/Wall Street Journal.  Both chose to exit local newspapering to concentrate on their national titles and associated businesses.

Reed said that total transactions for newspaper companies have ranged between $600 and $800 million each of the last four years and that he expects the same in 2015.  New Media will continue as a buyer, he indicated, but may pause on bigger transactions during the first half of the year to digest the Halifax and Stephens purchases.

Though Reed was not asked directly, that would appear to put New Media out of the bidding for Digital First Media, a chain of 75 papers up for sale since September..

An analyst asked how New Media was able to buy so many properties at a reasonable price.  Most of the market, Reed replied, accepts the notion that “newspapers are dying and nobody reads newspapers anymore.  The facts don’t support that” especially at smaller papers, he continued, “and we benefit from the disconnect.”

Unlike more established newspaper companies, New Media publishes a detailed quarterly supplement with additional statistics and an updated story on company strategy.

Even so there remains a bit of mystery about how the company is doing what its doing and, as a Yahoo Finance analysis yesterday, was headed, “prints cash for Wall Street.”  New Media pays 3.5 to 4.5 time cash flow when it acquires companies but itself trades at nearly 10 times cash flow.

That’s a sweet deal for Fortress and public investors tagging along — as long as it lasts.

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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…
Rick Edmonds

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