Newspapers eye extreme cuts as crisis grows
In the best of cases, publishers will continue aggressively nipping and tucking at staffing, benefits, newshole, and the footprint of their circulation areas. In the worst cases, some newspapers will be shut down – or endure only as skeleton-staffed online operations.
In one of the most startling of the potential initiatives, an amazing number of publishers of all sizes are giving serious consideration to eliminating print editions on certain days of the week, according to private conversations with operators who requested anonymity.
Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday editions, which typically carry the least amount of advertising, appear to be at the most risk.
With demand for newspaper advertising this year plummeting in every category (including online since March), industry ad revenues in 2008 are likely to be no better than $38 billion, or nearly 25% less than they were when sales hit an all-time peak of $49.4 billion in 2005.
In the third quarter of this year alone, sales plunged $2 billion, or a record 18.1%, in a historic, across-the-board rout paced by a nearly 31% drop in classified revenues. Bad as the third quarter was, publishers are bracing for worse, because the bottom did not fall out of the economy until the last two weeks of the most dismal three months in the history of the newspaper business.
The revenue trend in the first nine months of the year suggests that ad sales will be some 17% lower than they were in 2007. Given the deterioration of the economy that has occurred since mid-September, many publishers are planning for the possibility that sales will drop by a similar magnitude in 2009. Here’s why:
With the economy in turmoil, employers have stopped buying recruitment ads because they are not hiring, auto dealers are not advertising because no one is buying cars and real estate agents are not buying ads because they aren’t selling houses. Absent a miraculous turnaround early next year in the sectors that traditionally have generated 30% to 40% of newspaper advertising, the classified drought will continue into the new year as far as the eye can see.
The only relatively bright spot left for newspapers is retail advertising, which represents close to half of their revenues. Publishers report that many merchants are spending everything they can afford on advertising in the fourth quarter of this year in hopes of generating maximum sales during the make-or-break holiday shopping season.
By most accounts, all the heavy promotion was successful in driving post-Thanksgiving sales volume. But heavy discounting aimed at clearing out dearly financed inventories may not translate into profits for many merchants.
Thus, publishers are concerned that retail ad demand will collapse in the new year, as the recession shakes out the weakest merchants and simultaneously forces the survivors to tighten their belts. More than a dozen national and regional retail chains already are in liquidation, including Mervyn’s, Linens ’N’ Things and Whitehall Jewelers. Others, like Circuit City, are hanging on by a thread.
Fearing that next year could be worse than this one, many newspaper companies have stopped preparing the usual 12-month budgets and resorted, instead, to producing rolling, three-month (or shorter) forecasts to try to manage the impact of what appears to be a continuing slide in ad sales.
While no one knows how bad things could get before they start getting better, one thing is sure:
With approximately $12 billion in ad revenues vaporized in just three years and no economic turnaround in sight, many publishers are no longer scrambling mrely to sustain a certain level of profitability but are battling, instead, to keep their businesses solvent during the indeterminate time it will take for the economy to recover.
Even after a recovery materlizes, it will be a while before anyone can honestly say how much newspaper advertising is likely to return. Meantime, newspapers are in for the fight of their lives.
Tomorrow: Where the cuts may come
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