Before offering this advice, I should disclose that I am a Gannett shareholder as a result of being a former Gannett employee. My position with Gannett as an executive editor over a few of its small papers in Wisconsin was eliminated a little more than a year ago in a round of budget cuts. I’ve actually come out of that really well despite the position disappearing sooner than I anticipated, but as a shareholder by default of their 401K plan, I have legitimate concerns about Gannett’s expansion strategy.
Here is my advice not only as a shareholder but as someone who makes pretty good money giving such advice to media companies:
- Your USA Today Network strategy makes sense. Your local-to-national strategy does not. Your acquisition strategy makes less than no sense. Your Q3 results show that while you’re buying scale and adding revenue, you’re also adding costs at an unsustainable rate, especially with the double-digit quarterly decline in print advertising. If Wolfgang Blau of Conde Nast says the “war for scale” is over, why do you think your business is different?
- Look at your advertising base. You leave a lot of money on the table locally because you can’t afford to chase it on your cost base. The cost of acquisition for small local businesses’ ads in many small markets is too high for you. Your ad base is regional and national, not local in any meaningful way below a certain floor. That’s your business, and you need to build your content strategy off of that. (It’s also the reality of much of the media market in 2016.)
- On that assumption that you have a regional-to-national business rather than a local-to-national business, you should sell off the vast majority of what I’d call your hyperlocal properties, small sites like those I used to manage. Believing that the number of print properties you have translates into reach in 2016 is outdated print thinking that you need to jettison. You’re looking at consolidation through the wrong lens: Lots of properties != profit. If newspaper scale based on property count was the solution, it would have worked long ago. It hasn’t. Moreover, as Ken Doctor points out, the Street doesn’t believe you can wring out as much as savings as you think you can. Keep some local staff around the state, but be strategic about it. Look at your numbers, how often is there a story from these small sites that grabs national attention?
- Use the proceeds of these sales to buy a tent-pole property in as many states as makes sense. That’s the basis of a regional-to-national strategy, one that is built on sensible cost basis. It gives you scale without the costs, tightly focused execution and dramatically fewer print properties to try to manage. You have been so focused on cost cutting at a ridiculous number of properties that the product and your focus on execution have suffered. Regional products will be stronger and more sustainable than local or hyperlocal.
- In states where you don’t have a property or it’s uneconomic to buy one, launch digital regional properties. It’s more cost effective, and it gives you a good place to experiment without print legacy costs or thinking. Or partner and invest in properties like the Texas Tribune. A national expansion strategy will have to be creative and use different tactics based on the realities of different markets and regions across the country. This is guerrilla warfare for your future. Be creative and nimble, not corporatist and monolithic in your approach.
- Get deadly serious about your customer data. I know that is part of your strategy, but if you want respect from the Street again, you need to put that front and centre. You’re still drowning in the red ocean of print and struggling in the red ocean of digital advertising where Google and Facebook, with their superior ad tech and mountains of data, are the Great White Sharks gobbling up the market and leaving little but scraps for the rest. The media companies that come out the end of this Great Disruption will be focused on their content and commercial customers. This is the Bletchley Park Project for media. Crack the code of data or resign yourself to annihilation.
Let me end with this question: Did a Last Dead Man Walking strategy in print ever make any sense considering the swoon in print advertising over the past decade? Do you want to be a consolidator in a business sector in decline or a disruptor of your own business and others so you might have a future?*
* My day rates are well within your budget.