Economist: Avista Has Only Itself To Blame In ‘Strib’ Bankruptcy

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

Avista Capital Partners says slumping revenue in a brutal climate for newspapers everywhere forced the bankruptcy of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune — but media economist Robert Picard isn’t buying it.

Picard also believes the bankruptcies of Tribune Co. last month and the Star-Tribune now are not necessarily harbingers of more newspapers filing Chapter 11. Both companies, he notes, are operated by chief executives new to the newspaper business, Tribune’s Sam Zell a real estate businessman and the Avista partners private equity investors.

It wasn’t the economy, but Avista’s own business decisions that brought the Strib to bankruptcy, Picard argues.

“They’re blaming the changes in the industry, they’re blaming the economy, they’re blaming the unions — when clearly the blame belongs in New York with the managers of Avista,” Picard told E&P today.

Picard, a well-known academic expert on media economics who is editor of the Journal of Media Business Studies, argues that the expensive debt amassed by the Avista private equity group is the real reason the newspaper is filing for reorganization.

“This is a company that’s still making a profit,” he said. “They can’t withstand (economic conditions) now because their debts are so high. It was almost all debt in the financing of the acquisition.”

In its filing, Avista said the newspaper’s earnings before interest, taxes and debt payments were about $26 million in 2008, which was down from $115 million in 2004. Avista bought the Star-Tribune in 2006 for what was considered a fire-sale price of $530 million. The McClatchy Co., which at the time was absorbed its acquisition of Knight Ridder, sold the paper to establish a tax loss.

Picard said he believes — or at least hopes — that bankruptcy does not become “the new norm” for newspapers in financial binds.

In his blog “The Media Business,” Picard writes that newspapers’ traditional influence in communities was based on a perception of financial probity:

“The roles and influence of newspaper executives were founded on their standing in the community and of perceptions of their respectability, community interest, and fiscal dependability. Newspaper publishers and editors would loathe any hint of financial instability or impropriety that would mar those views. The reputation of the newspaper and its brand were inextricably linked,” he wrote.

In the interview, Picard said “traditional” newspaper companies will continue to try to avoid bankruptcy.

Longtime newspaper companies also are in better shape than Tribune and the Star-Tribune, even those that have substantial debt such as McClatchy, Picard said. “Private equity is the most expensive debt,” he said.

“For any of the traditional newspaper companies, (bankruptcy) would be the absolute last resort,” he said. “But, you know, once the dam breaks, sometimes it’s easy to just kind of wash your hands and go along with it. A lot of the old rules are out, but I hope the old rule of reputation stands.”

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