Call it the Fort Worth Massacre — about 50 of the 300 editorial employees will go, the paper will combine sections for the second time in six months to cut costs, and it has announced a subscription price increase. The Star-Telegram’s owner, McClatchy, has announced similar cuts chain-wide. It has seen double-digit losses in ad revenue for more than year, and its flagship papers in California and Miami have been especially hard hit by the real estate crunch.
So why does this matter to us? Because Wall Street’s actions yesterday say it expects the same thing at Dallas’ Only Daily Newspaper.
Morning News owner Belo’s stock price, which had rallied over the past month, dropped almost 4 percent yesterday. It closed at $7.67, closer than it has been to its all-time low of $7.44 at anytime since May 22. By comparison, McClatchy’s stock price dropped just 1.35 percent.
Make no mistake — this is a significant development. Belo, for all its problems, is generally considered to be much better run than McClatchy. The latter has been bleeding cash almost from the day it bought the Knight Ridder chain some two years ago, and investors have been calling for CEO Gary Pruitt’s head since at least last fall. That hasn’t happed with Belo boss Robert Decherd.
So why did Wall Street punish Belo yesterday? Some of it may have been profit taking, but a more likely answer is that it expects the same sorts of cuts from Belo, which the company hasn’t yet delivered. In fact, it has done just the opposite. Belo will launch a free paper in August called Briefing and add free home delivery for its Spanish-language paper, Al Dia. These are costly moves, and not what investors like to see in what the Wall Street Journal has called "a time when the industry was beginning an accelerated decline."
I certainly don’t want to see layoffs and consolidation at the News. I’m just baffled as to why Belo, which has always been such a bottom-line company, isn’t doing it. One theory? The timing isn’t right, given that management’s long-term goal is apparently to take the company private, when it will then cut costs and increase cash flow, boosting the numbers so it can take the company public again. We’ll probably know more by the end of the year.
A personal note: I’m the wine columnist for the Star-Telegram, which I do as a freelancer. I have not heard how the changes in Fort Worth will affect me. But I have worked with many of the people who have been laid off, including Gary Hardee, who was my boss in the sports department at the Dallas Times Herald almost 20 years ago. Gary was the Star-Telegram’s managing editor; he is fine newspaperman who taught me a lot. The people in Fort Worth will miss him.