8/13/2013 6:15 PM ET|
Time to pick up a newspaper stock?
Recent investments in the moribund industry by savvy innovators like Amazon's Jeff Bezos suggest that newspapers are at a turning point. And with changes in leadership, better days should lie ahead.
Remember how the newspaper is supposed to go the way of the dinosaur?
Well, don't tell that to Warren Buffett. Or Amazon.com (AMZN) founder Jeff Bezos. Or any of the other extremely successful innovators and investors who have been snapping up newspapers in the past six months. And don't tell billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, rumored to be eyeing a takeover of The New York Times (NYT).
The newspaper buying sprees of billionaires are part of what I like to call "the great asset reshuffle" in the print news business.
But what's the real meaning of this great asset reshuffle? Should everyday investors be following these billionaires into print? There are several reasons to say yes, and several stocks that look like buys. But first, we need to look at the big-picture significance of all this.
Sorely needed new leadership
If you step back, you'll notice that high level, all of these sales have one thing in common. The buyers -- who include Buffett, who's been purchasing local papers, Bezos, who just bought the Washington Post, and Red Sox owner John Henry, who bought the Boston Globe -- are highly successful and shrewd business leaders.
The sellers? Not so much, at least not lately. They're long-time publishers who have badly mismanaged the transition of the print news business to the Internet.
In short, forget all you hear about these newspaper takeovers being about ego or trophy collecting or efforts to purchase political influence. The buying spree is really just another example of an age-old investing paradigm: The smart money buying from the not-so-smart money.
Print news publishers, of course, aren't dumb. They know how to put out newspapers, from gathering news to running the presses. They've just never had to be the greatest business innovators, for two reasons.
First, they're driven as much by a sense of mission as profits. Second, for decades many newspapers have been de facto oligopolies, shielded from competition by powerful brands and the high costs of starting up new ones. This environment failed to breed a culture of innovation.
You only have to look at the dismal results of practically every newspaper company in the past 10 years to see that publishers utterly failed to figure out how to turn one of the greatest retail sales and content delivery innovations in the history of mankind -- the Internet -- to their advantage. It says a lot that the upstart Huffington Post website was sold in early 2011 for $315 million, while one of the nation's great newspapers, the Washington Post, just sold for $250 million.
Now, with Bezos, one of the masters of making money by selling content on the Internet, buying the Post, a major turning point in the newspaper business has arrived. Change will happen in fits and starts, and there will be kicking and screaming from purists along the way. But it will happen.
Basically, the Bezos purchase marks a turning point. If Bezos shows the way, as I expect, the rest of the managers in the foundering newspaper business will almost have to follow his lead. This suggests that other newspaper companies look like long-term buys, despite the strength of their stocks this year. I'd highlight The New York Times (NYT), News Corp. (NWSA), Gannett (GCI), Tribune Co. (TRBAA), E.W. Scripps (SSP), Lee Enterprises (LEE) and A.H. Belo (AHC). I'll have details on each of these later in this column.
But first, exactly how will Bezos revolutionize the newspaper industry? It's likely even Bezos doesn't know for sure, and no doubt it will take a few years of trial and error to figure out. But I recently spoke with several experts in the space to round up some possible avenues, and at a high level, the outlines of what he's likely to do are obvious.
Here are three key changes to expect at the Post and most other newspapers over the next five years.
All the news that fits your tastes
What do the successful Internet companies like Amazon, Google (GOOG) and Facebook (FB) do best? They watch your behavior to understand what you like, then serve up related content and point you to companies that sell related content or products.
Do newspapers do this, too? Not really, even though they claim to be in the business of satisfying consumer demands.
After all, if newspapers were good at this, a company like Perfect Market would not be in business. Perfect Market sells software that helps news sites improve traffic and make more money on the Internet. It does this by watching how people arrive at sites and what stories they read, then using the data to get a bead on what other stories to suggest and the best ads to serve up.
For example, people who land on a news site's home page most likely want to learn about what's new in general. Those who arrive from a search engine probably wants to drill down on a particular topic, says Tim Ruder, the chief revenue officer of Perfect Market. Knowing this, and by examining the content of articles that readers look at, Perfect Market customers like the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Baltimore Sun can serve up more relevant suggestions and keep readers with them for longer periods.
Gannett and News Corp. say on their conference calls that they are trying to do the same thing.
But Bezos was the innovator who developed and mastered the use of this concept to suggest -- and sell -- content and goods at Amazon. He'll no doubt use this strategy at the Post at some point. And this will revolutionize the news business.
"Bezos will finally bring the newspaper industry from the 18th century into the 21st century," says Paul Levinson a Fordham University professor of communications and author of "New New Media."
Sure, some people will kvetch about privacy and won't like being watched as they peruse the news. But for the most part, online content consumers and shoppers don't seem to mind too much, as long as it saves them time. In fact, they're willing to sign up and pay for customized content, which should help newspapers that do it well to sell online subscriptions, maintains P.K. Kannan, a marketing professor at the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business.
"Because search costs time, if someone is willing to give me personalized content and save me time, then I am willing to open my wallet," says Kannan.
Will letting readers shape the news they see compromise editorial quality? It doesn't have to. How many authors do you hear complaining about Bezos interfering with the content of their books, just because he figured out how to make money selling books online?
Besides, Bezos knows the power of the Washington Post brand lies in its reputation for independent editorial content. So he won't mash up that content so much that people get the impression the Post's independence is gone, says Kannan.
Editors, though, will have to get used to the idea that consumers have a big say in what's news, instead of just thinking "the news is what I decide it is," says Columbia Business School professor Rita Gunther McGrath.
"You don't want important stories to be overlooked in favor of the latest face cream," she says, but publishers do need to recognize what consumers want if they're going to start making money again.
Newspapers schmoozpapers... Everybody is too busy watching the Kardashians.
The dumbing down of America proceeds at warp speed.
Beam us all up Scottie!
There was a time when you would go into your local coffee shop, (what ever it may have been) and you would see many people reading the paper! However; Now all you see is people in there laptops/notebooks. The paper is truly dying.
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