Here is my theory: the Dallas Morning News is for sale. I have a sub-theory that goes with that theory. I think the paper will be sold to a huge national newspaper chain, not a local owner. I have an opinion that goes with that sub-theory. I think that’s a good thing for the paper and for the city.
Let’s backtrack a few months. That’s when James Moroney III, the chairman, president, and chief executive officer of A.H. Belo Corporation, said the paper would explore selling its downtown offices. It was framed as a way for the company to become more efficient and attract new talent, two things hard to do when you’re dealing with a dusty old building built in 1949.
I don’t think Moroney was lying about that motivation to sell the building (and parking lots the company owns). But given that large, urban newspapers are consolidating all over the country, and given that negotiations over said papers’ real estate holdings are often crucial to finalizing those sales, it seemed the “for sale” sign Moroney planted in front of his building was a good cover for a larger transactional event. In fact, I thought it was genius to basically tell the staff, “Hey, all these guys in suits, all this activity with bankers and such, it’s about the building, certainly not our desire to sell the paper itself. Nothing to see here, be on your way, go do a story on Real Housewives of Dallas workouts!”
Wonderful misdirection. Even if Moroney categorically denies that’s what it is. Which he did! In his earnings call with analysts in May, Moroney said (in corporate biz-speak) that my theory was bunk: “I think there’s a lot of people reading things into moving out of this building because a lot of newspaper companies have done that prior to perhaps starting to look at strategic alternatives. That has really zero to do—as you know, we’re in a very good position from a cash and no-debt standpoint. We don’t need to be raising cash, but frankly we do need to create a culture here that is attractive to people who are literally growing up in a digital world who are excited about working for a company with a forward-looking vision about media, and that is a little hard to convince them if you walk through this building that we are that company.”
In my best Will Ferrell-as-Ron Burgundy voice, let me say, “I don’t believe you.”
I have talked to people who know Moroney, who know the paper, and who know the industry. Numbers folks. Money folks. Journalism folks. They walked me through the reality of the DMN’s situation. With one voice, they said, “It’s time to sell.”
Well, the first person with whom I spoke didn’t say that right away. I emailed and asked him what he thought of A.H. Belo’s 2015 annual report, and he emailed me back a picture of the Titanic. Even when we finally chatted on the phone, I’m not exactly sure what he disliked most about the paper’s balance sheet, given the no-debt and cash-rich realities Moroney trumpeted to Wall Street. But here are four possibilities:
Revenue has been basically flat for four years, declining from $280 million in 2012 to $272 million in 2015.
Despite $12 million of cost-cutting last year (and $10 million more planned for this year), and shedding old-school newspaper properties and acquiring new digital and event companies in that time, the company posted losses in operating income of about $8 million in 2014 and about $18 million last year. (Sure, because of the sale of a paper in Riverside, California, in 2014, the company technically made money that year. But now the big assets have all been sold. Declining income has to be offset with digital revenue. It’s not growing fast enough to cover print’s decline.)
In 2015, in print advertising, the paper brought in about $65 million, or 10 percent less than it did in 2014, which was more than 10 percent less than it did in 2013. In 2006, print advertising brought in $406 million of the paper’s $498 million in net revenue.
The company’s cash balance went from about $158 million at the end of 2014 to about $78 million at the end of 2015.
The other folks I called pointed to these same warning signs. And when the first quarter results came out in May, and they showed more of the same, these experts reiterated that the paper’s leadership team has done all it can. It has cut costs. It has sold off non-core assets. It has brought in a new editor from a national digital site. It has diversified revenue streams as much as possible. All necessary, smart decisions. But you can only fix up a home for so long before everyone knows you’re putting it on the market.
I base my theory not just on the paper’s lackluster numbers. The industry as a whole is dying. Don’t need to spend a lot of time here. People like to point to the relative successes of the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, but those are unicorns. Print ad revenue for newspapers across the United States went from more than $46 billion in 2006 to less than $20 billion in 2014. Digital ad revenue in that time? From $2.7 billion to $3.5 billion. That won’t cut it.
Then there are the personalities of the people running the paper. I don’t think Moroney or Robert Decherd, who still is a controlling shareholder, have a deep, burning passion to run a marketing company that happens to produce a newspaper. And that’s what the Dallas Morning News as a company is becoming. Which is fine. No judgment. Heck, Moroney is one of the few publishers brave enough to admit that to survive, large urban dailies need to become huge marketing companies. “How do you deal with [the decline of print], to create a sustainable business model? You have to have growth,” he said last year. “It’s all about selling marketing messages—which we sold for so long so profitably through a single channel, the paper—through more channels of marketing.”
Think I’m overstating? Read Moroney’s message to analysts during the earnings call in May. It was mostly about the “value proposition” the company is building for its “marketing ecosystem.” Here is an actual sentence that came out of Moroney’s mouth about key plans for later this year:
“[W]e are going to take our B2B brand and rebrand it and really get out to our business customers and talk to them about this marketing solutions ecosystem that we have built through things that we have built internally or things that we have acquired, and we’re having really good success, as I mentioned not just a number of accounts that our salespeople have been able to sell into this ecosystem, but also the results, which is really the important part that we’ve been getting for our advertisers by putting together different combinations of these marketing services based on what their particular target audience is and what they are trying to accomplish.”
That is awesome if you’re The Richards Group. And that is exactly what the paper has to become, at least on some level, to survive.
Unless someone or some thing can take that earnings pressure off the Morning News. Which is where the paper’s next buyer comes in.
There are two kinds of buyers for large, urban newspapers these days: local billionaires and huge national newspaper companies. Everyone seems to want the billionaire owners. People in Boston were relatively happy when Boston Red Sox owner John Henry bought the Boston Globe (and its real estate, I should add) and promised to invest everything he could to make it profitable. Jeff Bezos has succeeded in making the Washington Post more of a national force, especially in the digital world, since he bought the paper. The billionaire model is cleaner, and it engenders goodwill locally.
The problem here is, as one of the money guys told me, “No amount of vanity will get a local billionaire to buy the Morning News. Why not just buy a marketing company if that’s where their growth is going to be? It may appeal to their ego to own a paper, but billionaires have high-priced lawyers on their payroll whose job it is to keep them billionaires by not making stupid purchases. And that company is a stupid purchase for an individual.”
But what if that billionaire is a maverick? What if he’s a loner, listens to no one? What if he’s a shark, swimming alone, looking for his next prey? That’s right. Mark Cuban. He’s a media junkie, he’s a digital guy, he’s loaded. He’s our Henry or Bezos.
I emailed Cuban to test the waters. “Hey,” I asked him, “any interest in buying the Dallas Morning News under any circumstances?” He emailed me back almost immediately: “Nope.”
Actually, that’s okay. As I said, I think it’s best if one of the two big media companies left in the game—Gannett or Hearst—buys the Morning News. Each is growing and acquiring papers all over the country. Hearst owns six newspapers in Texas, including excellent ones in San Antonio and Houston. Gannett has already done a lot of business with A.H. Belo, buying WFAA and its TV stations from it a few years ago. And that company, with its recent takeover bid of Tribune Publishing (Chicago, Los Angeles, and others), is showing the ambition to be a great national newspaper chain.
Having people who care about Dallas running the paper is nice, but so is having owners who aren’t, in theory, susceptible to the pressures from our moneyed class—long the chief criticism of the Morning News. Would I rather the paper stay in responsible, local hands forever? Sure. But I’d also rather have a paper that doesn’t need to become a marketing company just to survive.