Gannett profit slide points up industry peril
But this is no reason for the company’s oft-furloughed employees to cheer. Quite the opposite.
Gannett’s inability to reduce costs fast enough in recent years to sustain its traditionally high operating margins illustrates the grave challenge facing the newspaper industry:
Unless ad sales rapidly and vigorously rebound, the unavoidably high fixed costs associated with printing and delivering newspapers eventually could eat publishing companies alive.
To be sure, Gannett and most other publishers are far from going out of business. Almost all of them still continue to generate profits that put most other companies to shame.
But the rapidly declining profitability of Gannett and many of its peers suggests that they may be running out of ways to stay ahead of the enormous fixed costs that threaten the long-term future of newspapers.
Fixed costs are the costs you have to pay to be in business regardless of how much business you have. Apart from the variable cost of newsprint, it essentially costs a publisher as much to be equipped to print and deliver 100,000 newspapers as it does to print 75,000. Most fixed costs don’t go away when revenues fall by 30%, as they have at Gannett since 2006.
While publishers can trim so-called elastic costs by eliminating the op-ed page or shrinking the news staff, they can’t avoid the inelastic expenses required to operate complex manufacturing plants that are used only a few hours a day to make a highly perishable product that must be delivered on a demanding schedule by fleets of human-piloted vehicles.
If sales cannot cover fixed costs and a business runs out of variable costs to cut, then the business at some point won’t be able to make a profit. Absent profits, a company eventually goes out of business.
Precisely because Gannett has been so vigilant over the years about controlling such variable costs as headcount, pay and news hole, the company appears to be coming up against the reality of unavoidably high fixed costs faster than less-thrifty publishers who had relatively more fat to cut out of their organizations when ad sales collapsed. Here are the details:
While Gannett’s revenues topped out at $8 billion in 2006, the company’s sales were $5.6 billion in 2009, a plunge of 30.1% in just three years.
As much as sales slid, the drop in profitability was worse. The operating profits of the nation’s largest newspaper publisher plunged 51.6% to $1.1 billion in 2009 from nearly $2.3 billion in 2006. The trend, which accelerated in the last two years, is illustrated in the chart below.
Operating profits also are known as EBITDA, which stands for earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization. EBITDA reflects the amount of money a company makes on its actual operations, without respect to the numerous adjustments that can either increase or decrease the net earnings which are the focus of most business stories.
Gannett reaped $31 in EBITDA for every $100 sales in 2005 but its operating profits were only $20 for every $100 in revenues in 2009. Most companies would be tickled to have EBITDA of 20%, but that number looks fairly anemic when a business is accustomed to getting 31%.
Companies count on operating profits for a variety of purposes, like paying taxes, servicing debt, funding dividends or launching new digital products. If EBITDA falls way short of expectations for way too long, the economics of a business are unhinged.
Even though most news reports yesterday about Gannett’s 2009 earnings highlighted the improvement in its net income in the latest quarter, the steep EBITDA decline in the last two years suggests that the company, like most other publishers, is running out of ways to trim expenses as ad sales decline.
Given the inability of the company to sustain its margins as sales fell, it seems fair to hypothesize that profits will continue to erode if ad sales don’t recover or the company can’t develop significant alternative revenue sources.
“We are a leaner, stronger company as we move into 2010,” said Gannett chief executive Craig A. Dubow in a conference call with securities analysts to discuss the company’s financial health.
Leaner, yes. But stronger? That remains to be seen.