Last Year Tough for Print Media as Newspapers Lose $64B in Share Value

January 2nd, 2009 3:00 PM

Some call it "the dead tree edition" of the news media. But as 2009 dawns, trees may not be the only casualties.

Newspaper companies as an investment are less lucrative than they once were. Alan D. Mutter, a Silicon Valley CEO, pointed out on his blog that newspaper companies took a hit in 2008 in terms of share value to the tune of $64 billion.

"In the worst year in history for publishers, newspaper shares dropped an average of 83.3% in 2008, wiping out $64.5 billion in market value in just 12 months," Mutter wrote on Jan. 1. "Although things were tough for all sorts of businesses in the face of the worst economic slump since the 1930s, the decline among the newspaper shares last year was more than twice as deep as the 38.5% drop suffered by the Standard and Poor's average of 500 stocks."

These changes are occurring because of the digitalization of the medium, as Jeff Jarvis of wrote in a post published on BusinessWeek's Web site.

"It's not that print is bad. It's that digital is better. It has too many advantages (and there'll only be more): ubiquity, speed, permanence, searchability, the ability to update, the ability to remix, targeting, interaction, marketing via links, data feedback. Digital transcends the limitations of-and incorporates the best of-individual media," Jarvis wrote. "More important than any of that, of course, is that digital reduces the incremental cost of production and distribution of content to zero. And as every newspaper can tell you post-Craigslist: It's impossible to compete with free."

The switch from digital to print has proven cost effective Jarvis said. Although The Tribune Co., the holding company for The Los Angeles Times, is operating under bankruptcy protection, the transition to digital has shown results.

"Note that in 2008, online revenue at the Los Angeles Times surpassed the cost of its (reduced) newsroom, making it possible to produce the ‘paper' as a sustainable digital enterprise without the expense of creating and distributing a physical product," Jarvis wrote. "There is the beginning of the end of print."

But as newspapers struggle to catch up with technology, the media conglomerates that own a lot of these newspapers aren't winning over investors, as Dennis Kneale said on CNBC's Jan. 2 "Squawk on the Street."

"The whole thought of being so big and diversified with your finger in so many pies was so that if one business falls down, the others can offset it," Kneale said. "So, that's not as much of a worry. It's just that the entire big amount can't grow enough to win the favor of investors."

Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation (NASDAQ:NWSA) stock has struggled since purchasing The Wall Street Journal a year ago. According to Vanity Fair's Michael Wolff, despite holding one of the best run movie studios in Hollywood, News Corp's stock is trading at less than six-times-earnings.. Wolff says that it is a sign of the times -businesses supported by advertising will continue to have a tough go of it.

"Also they are really not in separate businesses except for the movie business," Wolff said on the Jan. 2 "Squawk on the Street." "If they're being supported by advertising across almost every platform, that's a major problem."