E-mail Service Gives Publishers Perspective

By: Mark Fitzgerald

In a newspaper business environment in which nothing is certain but uncertainty, an increasing number of papers have hit on a way to see how their performances stack up against their peers.

A confidential e-mail service allows subscribers in the industry to compare their operating margins, revenue, and advertising linage with each other. The report is arranged so no one can tell how any specific individual paper is performing — but it does allow comparisons based on circulation size and geographic location.

Growing almost entirely by word of mouth, the “Newspaper Industry Monthly Margin Report,” administered by the Inland Press Association in Des Plaines, Ill., has signed on 257 newspapers in 21 groups since it began circulating in August.

To jittery publishers, the appeal is obvious. “Of course, it allows a local publisher to measure his performance against peers and group owners to see how a local publisher is doing,” said Inland Executive Director Ray Carlsen. “But many publishers dealing with the economic changes these days are also finding it useful for the perspective it gives when you’re explaining your performance to owners or financial backers.”

The “Margin Report” is the brainchild of Mark G. Contreras, senior vice president of Pulitzer Inc. in St. Louis. “We were looking for something to compare ourselves against papers our size, and there really wasn’t anything out there, particularly [for comparison with] papers that are not publicly owned,” he said. He said he’s happy with what Inland produced: “You can sort by size, geography, or results. You can segregate, for example, Northeastern papers under 7,500 circulation. Typically, the economics of different regions are going to vary — this lets you control for that.”

Inland was in many ways a natural candidate to produce the report. For decades, it’s been the lead association behind the “Inland Cost and Revenue Study,” a benchmarking survey used by about one-fourth of all U.S. dailies. The confidentiality that pervades that study is replicated in the “Margin Report”: The top circulation category, for instance, stops at 30,000 and above, because it might be too easy to match results with individual daily papers at the metro level.

The reports, prepared by Dimitri Galetis, Inland’s business research director, reports operating margins as a percentage and as a percentage gain over or loss under the year before; margins year-to-date; earnings in dollars before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization; and monthly results and comparisons with last year of retail, national, classified, and preprint advertising. For each paper, the charge is $25 a year, Inland’s Carlsen said.

Among the groups receiving the reports every month are Dow Jones & Co. Inc.’s Ottaway Newspapers Inc. in Campbell Hall, N.Y.; Schurz Communications Inc. in South Bend, Ind.; and Pioneer Newspapers in Seattle.

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