May 6, 2015
The Tribune Tower on Chicago's Michigan Avenue. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

The Tribune Tower on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Tribune Publishing completed its second full quarter as a separate company with results much like the rest of the industry, eking out a small profit but still facing revenue declines.

Net earnings were $2.5 million for the first quarter of 2015 on revenues of $396 million.  That’s a profit margin of 0.6 percent. In the same period in 2014, the business earned $12 million.

Revenues fell 4.9 percent total, 5.7 percent in advertising year to year. CEO Jack Griffin pointed out in a conference call with analysts that the rate of decline was an improvement on the last quarter of 2014 when it was 10 percent..

The results are not strictly comparable because Tribune Publishing was still operating as a division of Tribune Co. in the first quarter of 2015 and has added a few properties since.

Griffin also said that he expected financial performance to improve in the second half of 2015, when the benefits of a year-long reorganization process kick in.

Generally, Griffin’s commentary emphasized the same issues and initiatives he discussed in earlier calls.  Tribune has installed new national sales executives, begun  to develop native advertising and digital marketing services and clamped down on costs.

His first question from an analyst was about the company’s tepid results on digital subscriptions — just 67,000 digital-only subscribers and another 600,000 taking advantage of print + digital deals.

“We’re in a period of a lot of testing,” he said. “We are very early days in this part of the business.”

On the advertising front, Griffin described the company as “historically highly reliant on digital classifieds” with ownership shares in CareerBuilder and other services.  Those assets stayed with Tribune Media as the company spun off, so it no longer gets a share of their earnings or an owner’s preferred rate.

That’s one reason for the emphasis on national advertising — potentially significant for a company that owns both the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times.  Already a couple of large national accounts have resumed advertising in the Times, Griffin said.

Griffin also disclosed that he has hired a consulting firm to work on squeezing out costs.  A particular emphasis is centralizing and mandating bidding for business services which individual properties previously had handled on their own.

“We have about $1 billion a year in outside spend…,” he said, “and we should be able to take out a few points a year out of that.”

Tribune Publishing has acquired some smaller papers near its Chicago, Baltimore and Hartford properties, and Griffin said the company is on the lookout for more such opportunities.

Shares of Tribune Publishing were trading down about 2.5 percent at the end of the day.

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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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