Today’s announcement that UT San Diego and its eight regional publications will be acquired by Tribune Publishing’s Los Angeles Times for a slightly better-than-fire sale price of $85 million (plus $100 million in pension liabilities) points to several things.
1. The price is probably a flat fee for the brand and expectations of selling regional advertising throughout southern California.
2. Individual components such as subscriber counts include a certain number of online subscribers. But there aren’t many online-only subs in this case.
3. UT San Diego’s various online and mobile services really aren’t factored in.
The U-T reported Sunday circulation of 271,564 for 1Q, 2015. On other days, circulation ranged between 169,484-222,479. The LA Times reported Sunday circulation of 965,598 and average weekday circulation of 650,718 for the six months that ended Sept. 30.
The LA Times will be able to save some costs with the acquisition by cutting circulation, printing, sales and perhaps, content costs. It will also more effectively sell regional accounts to large advertisers, specifically retailers, auto makers and auto dealers and medical. But in the end, online (or mobile) won’t be much of a factor.
That’s a shame. Back in 2002-2004, a former colleague of mine developed a general hypothesis that if a traditional media property could show recurring value in online properties, it would be able to boost its sale price by X percent — probably 20 percent or more. It was a major reason to double down on digital growth. But this clearly hasn’t happened.
I was chatting about this with BIA/Kelsey Senior Vice President and Chief Economist Mark Fratrik. He notes that online revenues accounted for 16.4 percent of newspaper revenue in 2014, and will be 17.9 percent in 2015. The forecast is for online revenues to grow slightly to 22.9 percent by 2019. This reflects some additional online revenue, but as he points out, it also reflects BIA/Kelsey’s expectations that print revenues will decline.
It is true that online could add value to traditional value property in some cases, says Fratrik. But San Diego is full of online competition from TV station sites, alternative sites and news start-ups.
The Times of San Diego, for instance, now reaches 150,000 unique users a month. Publisher Chris Jennewein — a former leader of UT San Diego’s digital operations — notes that 26 percent of his readers are aged 25-34 and seventy-five percent are under 55. “Our readers probably didn’t read either of the two newspapers to begin with,” he told me this morning via email.
For me, it is a sad situation. I lived in San Diego for 11 years, and occasionally did consulting projects for the newspaper. UT San Diego always had innovative online projects going on, and several strong leaders at the digital helm. It got deeply involved in email marketing services, online directories, Spanish language media, hyperlocal editions, premium iPad editions, video services, mobile headlines, entertainment publications, prepaid deals and loyalty services. But in the end, none of it seemed to matter very much.