Web Ads May Help Papers’ Woes

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Second-quarter results this week from several newspaper companies included a now-common litany of woes — sluggish advertising, declining circulation and rising newsprint costs. But a small ray of hope emerged as growth in online advertising, while still a small portion of revenues, looks to be picking up speed.

For one publisher in particular — Chicago-based Tribune Co. — the prospect of increased Web-related sales couldn’t come at a better time. Its declining profits and revenues could provide more ammunition to the restless Chandler family, the former owners of the Los Angeles Times and now the company’s largest shareholder.

Following the forced sale of Knight Ridder Inc. to McClatchy Co. earlier this year under shareholder pressure, the Chandlers have been pressing for radical action such as a breakup to boost Tribune’s long-lagging share price.

With a contested share buyback plan now complete, the pressure is on Tribune, the nation’s No. 3 newspaper company by circulation, to continue with measures it promised to revamp its businesses, including selling some $500 million in noncore assets and cutting $200 million in costs within two years.

The latest indication of those cost cuts came Friday as Tribune’s flagship paper, the Chicago Tribune, confirmed that it would eliminate about 120 jobs, or about 4 percent of its work force, by the end of the year. The cuts were reported in Friday editions of the newspaper.

So far, investors have been backing Tribune’s board and management, but they have made clear that they want to see more action to lift the stock, which now trades about 40 percent below where it was early in 2004. John P. Miller, portfolio manager with Ariel Capital Management LLC, a Tribune shareholder, said he hoped to see more results within the next six months or so.

While Miller, the Chandlers and others say the sum of Tribune’s parts is worth more than the current value of the whole, some disagree, pointing to declining valuations for both newspapers and broadcasting properties.

Deutsche Bank analyst Paul Ginocchio said in a note to investors that most breakup or buyout scenarios would value the company between $25 and $32 a share — below where Tribune’s shares have been trading recently. On Friday, the shares fell 40 cents to $31.10 on the New York Stock Exchange.

Tribune said its online revenue grew 27 percent in the second quarter, and CEO Dennis FitzSimons told an investor conference last month that Tribune hopes to see online advertising make up between 12 and 15 percent of newspaper revenues by 2010, up from about 6 percent this year.

Other major newspaper publishers reporting this week, including Gannett Co. and McClatchy, experienced similarly fast growth in online revenues. But many analysts remain skeptical about whether that growth will outpace the advertising lost to Internet-only destinations such as Yahoo and Craigslist, which get far more traffic than most newspaper sites.

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