Is Newspapers’ Falling Knife Finally Starting to Rise?

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Morning routineIn a booming year for the stock market, newspaper stocks actually more than DOUBLED the return of the S&P 500 in 2013.  Newspaper stocks rose by 79% in a year when the S&P 500 rose by just under 30%, a whopping performance few would have predicted.

While there are many one-off reasons for this, including solvency concerns at the two companies at the extremes, Lee and McClatchy, the bottom line is that Wall Street thinks the long-term decline of revenues may be near bottom as print losses are close to being outweighed by consumer and digital revenue increases.

newspaper stockeRick Edmonds at Poynter also points out that Gannett, Journal Communications, and E. W. Scripps also benefited from their re-surging local TV businesses.  But, take a look at the graph below from Google finance– the growth in stock prices was broad-based and steady throughout the year, with every newspaper company except McClatchy beating the market.

With Warren Buffet and Jeff Bezos buying into the industry as a long-term play, the broader financial markets are following suit. The newspaper industry is getting some of its most positive signs in years.

Capture gchartBut what is the reality?  Newspaper companies are increasingly refusing to share their detailed revenue data, so the fact base is thinning.  And many newspaper executives still do not see the end of inexorable revenue declines.

But there is a growing optimism that a new, stronger, multi-media newspaper is emerging, building upon a resilient core of loyal print readers, and that the falling knife in newspapers can, indeed, be caught by the best operators who can pick and own the best markets, while the rest are discarded.  As we begin 2014, this is the prevailing belief of today’s newspaper investor. The challenge is on to see which newspaper operators can deliver.

Implications for Local Digital Entrants.  The strongest newspaper companies have the lead position in local digital content in their markets, with some even pursuing a broader footprint like from the Star-Ledger.  As I wrote about five years ago, the consolidation of the newspaper industry is inevitable and ongoing, and now is extending to a consolidation of local online with the retrenchment of Patch and others. Local digital entrants face a choice: build your own local sales channel, or partner.

For those players who thought the knife would fall through the floor, and newspapers were headed to fast destruction, the choice was clear — go it alone… why partner with a loser?  If, as some of the “smart money” seems to believe, the knife’s decline is slowing and about to reverse, then local digital entrants’ best route to scaling may be finding the right legacy partner.

Jason KleinJason E. Klein is the founder/CEO of On Grid Ventures LLC, and investment and advisory firm focused on the startup and reinvention of businesses capitalizing on digital and location-based technologies. He is also a Managing Director at Empirical Media. Follow him on twitter @JKNews.