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Alden Global Capital drops a shoe: Is the Journal Register acquisition prelude to more consolidation?

Alden owns stakes in many of the newspaper industry’s biggest companies. Are its stakes in JRC and MediaNews Group the building blocks for assembling a newspaper conglomerate?

On Thursday, Journal Register Company announced that it had been acquired by Alden Global Capital, a secretive hedge fund that specializes in “distressed opportunities,” such as companies emerging from bankruptcy — including newspaper groups. The acquisition may foreshadow additional moves by Alden, which is interested in two strategies to add value to its investments: (a) it wants its newspaper holdings to aggressively develop digital capabilities and revenues, and (b) it wants to see consolidation (mergers) among newspaper groups.

In its capacity as a distressed-opportunity specialist, as I detailed here in January, Alden acquired stakes not only in JRC, but also in MediaNews Group, Philadelphia Media Network, Tribune, Freedom Communications, and the Canadian newspaper group Postmedia Network . Among publishers that avoided bankruptcy filings, it has stakes in A.H. Belo, Gannett, McClatchy, Media General and Journal Communications. (I detailed those investments in this post in March.) In addition to its newspaper holdings, Alden has other media investments, including in Emmis Communications and Sinclair Broadcast Group. Only the investments in public companies are detailed in SEC filings — they add up to about $210 million in media holdings. Together with the non-public investments in JRC, MediaNews, Freedom, Postmedia, and Philadelphia, Alden may have as much as $750 million of its total assets of $3 billion invested in newspaper and broadcast media properties.

At the time of that January post, Alden had just asserted itself at MediaNews Group by shaking up the executive suite and naming three new directors to the seven-member board. (Disclosure: I spent 13 years as a publisher at a MediaNews Group newspaper.) That move was important because it enabled Alden to use MediaNews as a platform from which to drive consolidation in the still-fractured U.S. newspaper industry. (The largest player, Gannett, owns only about 13 percent of the industry in terms of daily circulation.) Under SEC rules, by taking a position on the board, Alden was no longer allowed to speculate in MediaNews stock; hence, their assumption of board seats signalled an intent to use their MediaNews holdings strategically rather than speculatively. Until the JRC acquisition, Alden had not done the same at any of the other firms in which it had invested.

The first strategic move MediaNews made after the January shakeup was to make a bid for Freedom Communications, publisher of the Orange County Register and other papers and owner of broadcast properties, which put itself up for sale in March. Alden is believed to own about 40 percent of Freedom, a stake similar to its MediaNews holdings, but by not taking board seats, it had remained on the speculative side of the fence at Freedom, and therefore could not influence Freedom’s choice of an acquisition partner. But clearly, the ideal marriage from Alden’s point of view would be between Freedom and MediaNews.

Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that talks between MediaNews and Freedom had broken down, with a Freedom valuation of about $700 million at issue. Other suitors, including Tribune (in which Alden has a stake), may be in the picture, but with its relatively debt-free post-bankruptcy structure, and its heavy presence in the California newspaper market, MediaNews was in the strongest position in the bidding for Freedom. As Denver-based Westword (which keeps a close watch on MediaNews) said about the talks breakdown, “expect MediaNews Group and Freedom to sit down again in the coming months despite the current state of negotiation interruptus.”

It’s not hard to imagine an east-west strategy, with newspaper properties flowing into a western-U.S. consolidation led by MediaNews and an eastern grouping led by JRC.

Meanwhile, the Alden takeover of JRC gives it a second operating platform for its consolidation goals. Its JRC investment is now strategic rather than speculative as well; it can call the shots. Clearly, it likes JRC CEO John Paton, one of the prime exponents of a “digital first” strategy. Paton has also had a relationship with Alden’s Canadian interest, Postmedia, including a spot on its board and a role in recruiting its CEO, Paul Godfrey.

Since Paton took over JRC as it emerged from bankruptcy in 2009, he has built a reputation as a visionary by replacing old proprietary systems with open source software and cloud-based services. In 2010, the company said it earned $41 million in cash flow and increased digital revenues about 70 percent.

JRC, with Alden backing, could now become an east-coast consolidator by scooping up other newspapers and newspaper groups — perhaps even acquiring the East Coast holdings of MediaNews, papers in Pennsylvania and New England which, although dear to the heart of chairman Dean Singleton, are mostly a distraction to its Denver-based, California-centric holdings.

Obviously, the Philadelphia newspapers could be part of the reshuffle/consolidation, and other owners, including Gannett, could join the fray. (Gannett already is partnered with MediaNews in California.) It’s not hard to imagine an east-west strategy, with newspaper properties flowing into a western-U.S. consolidation led by MediaNews and an eastern grouping led by JRC. Even without mergers, there are places where Alden could encourage strategic partnerships between companies it owns or has invested in — for example, between JRC and the Philadelphia newspapers.

Shira Ovide of the Wall Street Journal noted, in response to the Alden acquisition of JRC, that there hadn’t been much action in the newspaper acquisitions market for some time. But the market could be loosening up. During the recession and beyond, owners held on, remembering the inflated values of the 1990s and early 2000s. It’s now clear both that those days will not come back and that Alden has its fingers on key factors that could build value: digital first, and consolidation. And Alden seems to have a nice cash pipeline.

Nostalgia for “local newspaper ownership” notwithstanding, the market will push owners into sales and mergers until there are just a few major owners of newspapers across the country. Even if this happens, daily print publication may still not be sustainable in many markets for more than a few years — but that’s another topic. The gamble for Alden and others is to accumulate a stake in a consolidated newspaper industry in the hopes that its local brands can retain (or regain) value as mainly digital enterprises.

Still, neither JRC’s digital-first focus nor industry consolidation strategies are magic bullets. Alden’s money chases risk in order to earn high rewards, and there’s a lot of risk in this picture.

On the digital-first side, we’re still waiting to see if newspapers can catch up and increase their share of the online ad market. JRC may have grown its online revenue by 70 percent, but in 2010 digital revenue for the daily newspaper industry as a whole grew just 10.9 percent, and still showed less online revenue than it had in 2007 ($3.042 billion in 2010 versus $3.166 billion in 2007). And much of what newspapers count as digital revenue is sold in print-dominated packages, not as pure online advertising.

As for consolidation, as I noted in a comment to Ken Doctor’s March post, “The Newsonomics of roll-up,” we could be looking at a classic industry mop-up operation — where the consolidator knows it’s all downhill from here, but is able to buy assets so cheaply that just milking them until they run dry produces a nice return. I wrote at the time in that comment:

While newspaper values have bounced back from rock bottom, you can still buy newspaper assets for a fraction of what they were worth at the peak six years ago (20 to 25 cents on the dollar, at most, depending on the company), with cash-flow paybacks in the range of 5-6 years, plus the consolidation benefits, plus, in many cases, valuable real estate that can be flipped. And with some luck, a digital spinoff or residual asset a few years down the road. So without much risk, maybe you can double your money over five years. (And if you’re really lucky, the economy keeps improving and you can find a bigger sucker and double your investment in just in a couple of years.) I believe that’s the Alden Global strategy. They have put their people on the board at MediaNews (and nowhere else) in order to use it as a launching platform for consolidation.

Let me temper that with the benefit of the doubt. John Paton says that Alden believes in digital-first. But if that strategy doesn’t begin to deliver the returns Alden expects — at JRC, MediaNews, or any other media outfit where Alden chooses to exercise the influence that comes with its ownership stake — the mop will come out of the closet and we’ll see a consolidation that’s driven purely by financial strategists at Wall Street firms, with no particular concern for journalism, digital or otherwise.

                                   
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