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Sept. 5, 2012, 2:04 p.m.

Journal Register Co. declares bankruptcy…again: Is this the industry’s first real reboot?

JRC’s second bankruptcy in barely three years will be give it as close to a clean start as any newspaper company has gotten. Now, all John Paton has to do is deliver.

It was just three years ago that the Journal Register Co. filed for bankruptcy, its collection of small local newspapers hit hard by the economic crisis and the secular decline of the newspaper industry.

But it came out of bankruptcy in only six months, and the changes started coming quickly: bringing in John Paton as CEO, committing to growing digital revenue, hiring away top talent, experimenting with open-source software and open-to-the-community newsrooms…it’s been hard to keep up with its one-new-initiative-a-week pace. They’ve been on the move, in a way that frankly hasn’t been the norm in the American newspaper business.

Through it all, Paton emerged as the industry’s most vocal cheerleader for a digital-first culture — and that was even before “digital first” went from a mantra to the name of a new parent company that would also run the much larger MediaNews chain of newspapers. JRC reported digital revenue growth as strong or stronger than their peers and seemed to be making good progress towards a company-wide culture change.

So today, JRC announced…it was declaring bankruptcy again. Here’s Paton:

The Company exited the 2009 restructuring with approximately $225 million in debt and with a legacy cost structure, which includes leases, defined benefit pensions and other liabilities that are now unsustainable and threaten the Company’s efforts for a successful digital transformation.

From 2009 through 2011, digital revenue grew 235% and digital audience more than doubled at Journal Register Company. So far this year, digital revenue is up 32.5%. Expenses by year’s end will be down more than 9.7% compared to 2009.

At the same time, as total expenses were down overall, the Company has invested heavily in digital with digital expenses up 151% since 2009. Journal Register Company has and will continue to invest in the future.

Journal Register expects to emerge from bankruptcy in around 90 days; operations will continue uninterrupted during the process.

Since JRC is as watched as any newspaper company outside The New York Times Co., here are three quick thoughts on today’s move, based on Paton’s post, the company’s press release, and our previous reporting.

I. Room for further consolidation?

JRC is owned by Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund that has investments across much of the publicly traded U.S. newspaper industry. Those investments, combined with its merger-without-merging with MediaNews last year, has led some, like our own Martin Langeveld, to posit that Alden is pushing for a major consolidation of the newspaper industry.

It’s easy to imagine how some of JRC’s recent moves — like its outsourcing of national business news and its chain-wide aggregation project Project Thunderdome — could scale well across a broader swath of the industry.

JRC will apparently enter bankruptcy with a buyer at the ready — something called 21st CMH Acquisition Co., “an affiliate of funds managed by Alden Global Capital LLC,” which has submitted a signed stalking horse bid. So it appears that, in the end, Alden will still be in control, with Paton continuing as CEO.

(I’m not sure how much to read into the creation of something called an acquisition company — is it just to acquire JRC, or is it a staging area for further acquisitions and consolidation, a sort of decades-later echo to what Gannett did buying up family-owned papers? Does 21st CMH stand for “21st Century Media Holdings”? Just a guess.)

Newspaper valuations have for the most part stopped plummeting — if only because there’s only so far for a still-profit-making company to fall. (Year-to-date, some are actually up in stock price: The New York Times Co. is up 21.5 percent, Gannett’s 13.5 percent.) But it’s reasonable to think there are still any number of companies that would be happy to find an exit to scale. By re-buying, in effect, a slimmed-down JRC, Alden seems to be showing it’s still interested in that model.

(Although it’s more than a little crappy that JRC’s employee FAQ says decisions about everyone’s job status will be “made by the ultimate purchaser” — when that ultimate purchaser is apparently just another arm of the current owner. It’s theoretically possible that, at a bankruptcy auction, someone could outbid Alden for JRC, but it seems highly unlikely; Alden’s one of the few folks wanting to put money into newspapers rather than pull it out.)

II. A second shot at shaving debt

It’s worth noting that Paton didn’t become CEO until after the last bankruptcy was concluded. (Paton joined JRC’s board in August 2009 when the company came out of bankruptcy; he became CEO in early 2010.) Paton is arguing now that the terms of the previous bankruptcy were built on higher hopes for print than has since proven justified — that the company didn’t shave enough off its debt and contractual obligations to hack it in today’s business.

We’re on the right track with digital revenue, he’s saying, but we’re still handcuffed by fiscal decisions made from a print-is-healthy mindset:

All of the digital initiatives and expense efforts are consistent with the Company’s Digital First strategy and while the Journal Register Company cannot afford to halt its investments in its digital future it can now no longer afford the legacy obligations incurred in the past.

Many of those obligations, such as leases, were entered into in the past when revenues, at their peak, were nearly twice as big as they are today and are no longer sustainable. Revenues in 2005 were about two times bigger than projected 2012 revenues. Defined Benefit Pension underfunding liabilities have grown 52% since 2009.

Timing is, truly, everything. The newspaper companies that made terrible-in-hindsight decisions to bet on print at peak valuations — McClatchy buying Knight Ridder, for instance — were stuck with crippling debt obligations. But if you just stuck around long enough, that major metro that cost $562 million in 2006 could be had for $55 million in 2012. Alden, as a fund, focuses on distressed assets, those available at market values below their true value. (You can see why they’d be interested in newspapers.)

JRC seems to suffer from an analogous problem: It went through its bankruptcy at a time when some executives still thought the downturn was cyclical and not permanent. That left it with obligations that likely can’t be sustainable in the primarily-digital-revenue model Paton is building toward. One imagines that Paton won’t make that same mistake this go-round. (Sister company MediaNews already had its strategic, debt-trimming bankruptcy.)

That’s little comfort if you’re owed a share of those pension benefits now deemed “no longer sustainable,” of course. But the reality is that most newspaper companies are still not close to a footing that’s sustainable for the long term. Anyone who’s surprised by today’s news and thought the industry’s cuts were over is going to be disappointed for, at a minimum, several more years. (Go back and re-read David Carr’s prescient July 9 article, which put it plainly: “Two highly placed newspaper executives told me last week that while the industry had already experienced a number of strategic bankruptcies, more will most likely take place to deal with pension obligations.”)

III. It’s put-up-or-shut-up time

Paton’s been the industry’s most effective evangelist for a digital future. (It helps that he took over a newspaper chain not known for quality or tradition beforehand; he has a free hand that Arthur Sulzberger or Don Graham don’t to do deep institutional surgery.) JRC and Digital First have been great at putting forward an innovative face, from its heavy-hitter advisory board to small demonstration projects (Ben Franklin Project) and more substantial rethinkings of workflows (Project Thunderdome).

And they’ve done so in a way that is both open (they’re happy to tell you about the amazing things they’re doing) and closed (not reporting financial results, as publicly traded companies must).

But it’s been harder to be certain how Paton’s optimism has translated into results. Digital revenues are growing, but from an unspectacular base. Many of the company’s initiatives seem, while interesting, unlikely to move the revenue needle much. Print revenues are a problem, just as they are at its peers. Today’s release illustrates that JRC hasn’t yet found the magic formula.

But could Paton’s plan be a model for the local and regional newspaper industry as a whole, as some have dearly hoped?

Paton now will have his chance to prove it. In around 90 days, he’ll have had his chance to shed the costs he wants to shed. No longer will “we were built for print” be a good excuse; if two bankruptcies can’t clear out all those cobwebs, I’m not sure what could. “Digital first” will move from a slogan to a corporate name to a foundation of the company’s business structure.

The newspaper industry’s problem today is not that its leaders don’t know how to make money in media. Lots and lots of money still flows through newspaper offices every day. It’s that they can no longer make that money at the scale they could 10 years ago — but their cost structures are still tied to that old scale. That’s why the past half-decade has been a seemingly endless string of layoffs and cutbacks, shaving dollars and people to keep up with revenue declines, while still being stuck in a fundamentally print-driven structure.

Meanwhile, as newspapers were busy writing press releases about layoffs, their nimble online-native competitors have been able to start from a blank sheet of paper and build for a digital scale of revenue.

This bankruptcy will allow JRC to have get the closest thing the newspaper business has seen to a true reboot.

Now all Paton has to do is deliver.

POSTED     Sept. 5, 2012, 2:04 p.m.
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