Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Newspaper's Business

It's none of yours, according to The Commercial Appeal.

Posted By on Wed, Jul 26, 2006 at 4:00 AM

So how's the newspaper business in Memphis these days?

Apparently it's not too shabby, although you wouldn't know it from reading The Commercial Appeal. The daily's parent company, E.W. Scripps, released its second-quarter earnings this week. In keeping with its long tradition of giving readers nothing of value in the way of financials or self-analysis, the CA kissed off the earnings report with a nine-paragraph AP story buried on the second page of the Business section. No local angle, zilch, and -- incredibly -- not a word about the profits in the newspaper division.

Scripps has as much interest in oceanography as it does in newspapers. It sees the Internet and cable television as giant shopping malls for its products such as Shopzilla, uSwitch, HGTV, the Food Network, Fine Living, and Great American Country. Scripps is selling its Nashville-based Shop At Home television operation. Blah, blah, blah.

Did someone say news? Print newspapers? Declining readership? New reading habits? Vanishing younger readers? More emphasis on local news? Bigger color pictures? The results of offering buyouts to older employees? Who gives a crap, Scripps and the CA seem to say. And it's none of your business anyway. You old fogeys who can't wean yourselves off of print newspapers can just shut up and keep sending in your checks for home delivery of the incredible shrinking newspaper. The brain trust in Cincinnati will take care of everything. CA editor Chris Peck would rather write about his new fascination with auto racing than the meat and potatoes of journalism.

As has become my custom in recent years, I turned to The Wall Street Journal and the Internet to get my local business news fix. There I learned that Scripps' wholly owned newspapers enjoyed a revenue rise of 4.8 percent to $182 million, and advertising revenue rose 6.4 percent to $147 million. Local, classified, and online advertising were all up anywhere from 2.3 to 14 percent.

Let me repeat that: Ad revenue and overall revenue in the newspaper division is rising, not falling, as the alarmists and budget-slashers at 495 Union Avenue would have us believe. Scripps, of course, does not release financial info for individual newspapers, and there is no one there with the guts to leak them, although there are plenty of anonymous whiners.

At Scripps.com, a Web site which is obviously unfamiliar to local reporters, I learned a little more. Newspaper segment profits were hurt by a decrease in earnings at the company's newspapers in Denver, Cincinnati, and Albuquerque -- all of which are published under joint operating agreements with other dailies. The CA, on the other hand, enjoys a monopoly. Let us assume, then, that its profits at least kept pace with the other wholly owned Scripps papers. If it ain't so, the Flyer will be glad to print a correction, if somebody will show us the evidence.

Scripps even got a nice little hurricane kicker of $1.8 million from an insurance settlement related to its Florida newspapers.

So I don't think we'll be printing any correction. All in all, it was "an excellent second quarter" at Scripps, said CEO Kenneth Lowe. He added, "At our newspapers, advertising revenue grew respectably during the second quarter, thanks to improved classified results, particularly in the real estate category, and rapidly growing online advertising."

It would be nice to have some local insight and perspective on this from Chris Peck and Joe Pepe or the editors and reporters on the business staff. What's the deal on the new sections and the zoned editions? How has circulation responded? How is daily newspapering different in Memphis than it is in the other 17 markets where Scripps operates? If profits are increasing, will readers also see an increase in the news hole and the number of local reporters? Was there a measurable "Wendi factor" when the popular columnist briefly left Memphis for Baltimore?

Those of us who religiously read newspapers care about such things. This spitting-in-the-wind rant aside, we have no desire to see the CA suffer. On the contrary, we'd like to see it get bigger. And we'd like to be treated like intelligent consumers capable of digesting a business story with some nuance, numbers, and analysis.

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