Tuesday, February 01, 2011

USAT | For a 10th quarter, paid ad pages fall

The number of paid advertising pages at USA Today fell nearly 4% in the fourth quarter, Gannett's quarterly financial report showed yesterday -- marking the 10th quarter of declines since early 2008, when the national economy fell into a deep recession that has hobbled GCI's biggest-selling daily ever since.

Pages totaled 680 vs. 705 in the fourth quarter of 2009. (See table, above.) To be sure, the most recent quarter's drop was a marked improvement over the final three months of 2009, when pages fell nearly 11%, a review of financial statements shows.

But to fully appreciate the truly steep drop-off in recent years, consider this: During the fourth quarter of 2007, USAT reported 1,045 pages of paid advertising.

Also yesterday, GCI once more omitted information about USAT's overall ad revenue trend. Previously, GCI had generally reported revenue changes at the daily, whether up or down -- an important barometer of USAT's financial health. In fact, however, the revenue figures had shown a steady march downward -- a trend that apparently proved to be a public relations problem for the company. The last time GCI reported the information, in 2010's first quarter, USAT's revenue had fallen 11% from the prior-year's quarter.

Soon after that omission, Publisher Dave Hunke announced a big staff reorganization meant to arrest declining advertising and circulation. With only advertising page data -- and only in print -- it is difficult to assess the newspaper's health. Still, the 4% page decline in the fourth quarter is not a good sign.

USAT is the only business unit for which GCI breaks out any results.

USAT's 'softer demand'
In yesterday's quarterly conference call with Wall Street analysts, according to SeekingAlpha's transcript, COO Gracia Martore said of USAT's role in the company:

"National advertising, as I noted, was lower in the quarter. We did have stronger national advertising at our U.S. Community Publishing, but that was offset by softer ad demand at USA Today and its associated businesses. There was strength in the travel and financial categories there, both of which were in the top five categories in the quarter. However, several key categories lagged last year. If you exclude USA Today and USA Weekend, national advertising for the total Publishing Segment was up almost 3% in the quarter."

She added: "Digital advertising continues to be a significant focus for us. The growth in digital advertising in our Publishing Segment continued again this quarter and reflects those efforts. Digital advertising revenue for the U.S. Community Publishing, Newsquest and USA Today were all up nicely in the quarter, particularly U.S. Community Publishing, which was up 16% and USA Today, which jumped 19%."

During the question-and-answer portion of the call, Martore told analysts that USAT's circulation was basically unchanged in the fourth quarters vs. the prior year's quarter: "So good news on the USA Today side as we had indicated in December from a circulation standpoint."

Was USAT weakness surprise?
Analyst Douglas Arthur of Evercore Partners asked: "Just staying with USA Today for a second. Did the weakness in print advertising in Q4 surprise you? And when I look at the categories that you cite weakness, in technology, telecom, auto advocacy, that it doesn't seem to jive with what were seeing in the market as a whole. So could you talk to sort of your plans going forward to turn the print side of the paper around?"

CEO Craig Dubow's reply: "We have been working hard. I have to say when you take a look at some of the other key categories, it was a bit mixed. But I have to say auto has done very well from overall. Retail has picked up significantly. And despite where we are on other real estate, that has done fairly well also. So there are a number of areas that David Hunke is really working on with his new verticals strategy. And we're beginning to see some other opportunities as the health of the market picks up."

Dubow continued: "But for Q4, we did see -- with travel, there were some very positive increases there. the Financial and insurance also had a good number, and credit cards was a pretty good solid number as well. So it's a little different than what we're seeing in our other products, certainly, at USCP. But I think we're making some very, very good progress."

[Image: today's front page, Newseum]


  1. As Martore would say, I have "limited visibility" on USAT's print advertising trends. However, I can tell you the following:

    Through approximately October of last year, USAT reported about $150 million in print ad sales. That was down around 10% from the same YTD period in 2009.

    (Hi, Dave!)

  2. You have to give them some stories they want to read, and that is where USA Today is failing. It is just not worth the effort to stop at the store and pick it up.

  3. If you wanted to know how dead is the industry that delivers yesterday's news today, just look at how people responded to the Egypt protests. Friends I know were rivited to this story, but not to the newspapers that they buy. They were on the Internet or watching Cable TV to find out what was going on. I never felt newspapers were so dead as they were in this crisis. The dead tree part of the industry has to learn that pumping out stories on Egypt is dead air. Analysis, commentary or color stories are ok, but news of yesterday's demonstrations is meaningless when today the story changed when Mubarek agreed to step aside. The Web updates need to be by on-scene staffers, not AP. Yes it is a lot of additonal work, but that's what we need them to do and it's what they are being paid for.

  4. Jim:

    It's a little worse than that for the most recent year. The Q1 revenue decline from 2010 still can be used as a benchmark if the ad rate held firm for the year (that's just an assumption).

    Backing into that number, and this is what probably forced them to stop sending out that data, the total revenue for the year would be down 14.81% in 2010 while ad pages were down just 1%.

  5. Just like our paper - ad sales are down. Way down. It's no longer seasonal, it's probably forever. At this rate, more layoffs will have to happen. We're in a death spiral and there seems to be no way to pull out.

  6. These conference calls are amazing. Dubow sounds like a jackass. Just look at his responses. Empty and stupid. Martore just flat out lies and never answers the questions. The analysts are to blame. These over paid financial people do not hold the management team accountable. Who would let Dubow get away with such stupid answers!

    Hunke...Have another Scotch baby!!!

  7. Dubow sure can rattle on without answering the question!

    Give that boy an A+ for avoidance!

  8. These stock guys certainly are a deferential bunch! How about they really lean on these folks and pin them down to details!

    Maybe they're just trying to be nice to the village idiots. Maybe they know Dubow and Martore are blowing hot air.

  9. They're holding these clowns accountable alright. Have you seen the stock price? That's how Wall Street values the responses and the future faith in Craig's "team."

  10. Some good USAT news from Q&A that Jim somehow missed:

    James Goss - Barrington Research Associates, Inc.: Are both the Internet and iPad additions totally ad supported at this point or do you see any chance for any subscription element, especially with the New York Times now trying to consider pay wall-type ideas?

    Craig Dubow: We are come as you know, we have three test locations that are going on. We are looking across the board at this and trying to make absolutely the best call we can on it. And to date, we're going to continue with what we have from an ad supported, that is going well for us.

  11. Thanks, 10:11. I wrote about that yesterday, on a post about the earnings call. But it's good to see it here, too.

  12. "print ad sales down"...who wants to advertise with over priced prices, in a newspaper that is no thicker than what used to be a Friday insert?

    "It is just not worth the effort to stop at the store and pick it up."...Not at a dollar a pop for something thinner than...read above comment!

    "If you wanted to know how dead is the industry that delivers yesterday's news today, just look at how people responded to the Egypt protests"...and that's something new to you? A newspaper used to be the place where one would get in depth stories, background stories, where TV would only cover visuals. One would get the whole story. Not anymore.

  13. The WSJ seems to dedicate much more space to analysis than it does to actual news. Is there a philosophical difference from an editorial standpoint?

    Is that the reason the WSJ and now The Daily will continue to crush us?

  14. But why should Dubow & Friends give real meaty answers? It's like Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said at Super Bowl media day on why he answers questions the way he does, "I've been up here for 55 minutes and haven't said anything newsworthy and I'm proud of it."

  15. USAT is in deep trouble. All the Dubow/Hunke spin in the world isn't going to change things. The ad department is ineffective selling ads, and the newsroom is seriously top heavy in managers. Both need overhaul, and in the newsroom, serious pruning. Too many chiefs running around making decisions that just get in the way of putting out a timely product, both in print and on-line. The much ballyhooed verticals are no savior. The content is weak, dated and not attracting advertisers outside of Money. How long is this going to continue?

  16. 12:31 - they wont wait until the end of the year. Some of Heather Frank's people are already being reassigned. Hunke's management group is developing a contingency plan for new layoffs. People who were on thin ice before need to get their resumes updated. This time, it'll be high earners who get the axe.


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