Advance Publications Mid-Year Performance a Mixed Bag

July marked a rash of self-assessment by the newspaper industry, including by the local newspaper division of Times-Picayune owner Advance Publications.

Randy Siegel, president of Advance Local, twice annually pens an assessment of the Advance_Localcompany’s progress toward becoming a “digital first” company. His update is ostensibly for employees, but is publicly available on the Advance Local website, and often scrutinized by analysts. His July 16 report is unsurprisingly upbeat, but Poynter Institute’s Rick Edmonds deciphered Siegel’s report and finds that despite Advance’s head start in the digital-first foray, the company is “in the same boat as its peers — needing to serve two different audiences with very different platform preferences for some years to come while inventing a future of their organizations.”

As Edmonds notes, Siegel acknowledges that Advance Local has fallen short of its goals:

“We still have a long way to go … Our business-to-business sales initiatives, while growing well in terms of year-over-year percentage growth, are a fraction of what they should be. While our mobile and video ad revenue gains have also been stellar in terms of year-over-year percentage growth, they should be increasing at a much faster rate given our level of investment.”

poynter_logoEdmonds also notes that “Siegel backed off his claim of six months ago that digital ad gains this year will surpass print losses,” conceding that newspaper declines have been “steeper than we budgeted for.”

Edmonds highlighted some areas where The Times-Picayune and other Advance newspapers are likely saving money when compared to other newspapers, and others where they are losing out on revenue opportunities. Of note:

  • Advance is likely saving money on production and delivery expenses because most Advance newspapers (including the Picayune) are producing and distributing fewer newspapers (three a week during non-football season in New Orleans).
  • Payroll expenses are also likely lower after wholesale reductions in most Advance newsrooms, including the Picayune‘s. The company counters that it subsequently hired a lot of digital-savvy staff, but those employees are, by-and-large, younger and likely less-expensive than the veterans who were terminated during the 2012 mass reductions, and are receiving more-modest fringe benefits. Rumors abound that more staff cuts will come in New Orleans later this year or in early 2016.
  • While three-quarters of newspapers now charge non-subscribers for digital access, Advance has stuck with an advertising-supported, free-access website model. That means Advance isn’t reaping online subscription revenue, or additional revenue from higher print subscription and single-copy prices that most newspapers have been able to charge.
  • On the flip side, Advance is likely avoiding the worst of industry-wide print advertising losses because most ad schedules and nearly all of the more lucrative pre-print insert advertising are still appearing on the days its newspapers publish print editions.

Siegel told Edmonds that Advance’s digital audience continues to grow — a 34% year-to-year increase in unique visitors for the first half of 2015. Quantcast currently ranks all 12 Advance sites combined as the 68th most-trafficked “network” on the web. NOLA.com is 449th, and sixth among Advance’s newspaper sites.

Edmonds adds that declining digital ad rates and continued domination by Google and Facebook probably mean digital ad revenues aren’t what Advance hoped for. “If Advance miscalculated, I’m guessing it was in the hope that loyal seven-day print readers could be brought along to the website as a substitute on non-print days,” he concludes, before citing what he calls “surprising research” by the Newspaper Association of America last year that a majority of print subscribers never access their newspaper’s digital sites.

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Poynter.org: Advance claims digital ad growth will outpace print declines in 2015

Advance_LocalIn his biannual letter to employees, Advance Local President Randy Siegel, the highest-ranking non-Newhouse family member in the Advance newspaper digital hierarchy, says the company is “poised to achieve a critical crossover point in 2015: digital advertising gains will exceed print newspaper ad losses,” Poynter Institute researcher and writer Rick Edmonds reports.

Randy Siegel

Advance Local President Randy Siegel

Underscoring that Advance’s New Orleans property isn’t the only one that loves to invoke marketing-speak when talking about its business, Siegel reports, “Our local sales and marketing teams have leveraged their entrepreneurial abilities and expansive digital knowledge to prove they can grow digital ad revenue faster than we’re losing print ad revenue. In 2015, our local leadership teams plan to generate higher total ad revenue in every one of our markets, reversing a longstanding trend of decline.”

Advance Local’s sites have averaged 55% traffic gains year-to-year, as measured by comScore, Siegel wrote, with Cleveland.com and SILive.com (Staten Island) more than doubling their audiences year-to-year in November.

Advance Local’s lofty prognostications aside, Edmonds reports that based on the aggregate results of publicly traded newspaper companies through the first three quarters of 2014 (many company’s fourth quarter’s results won’t be reported until next month), the yearlong results are expected “to show total revenue at most companies and the entire industry down again.”

“Other newspaper/digital companies may also be able to achieve revenue growth in 2015, though to my knowledge, Advance is first to make that promise.” Poynter Institute’s Rick Edmonds

Advance is a privately held company and consequently is not required to report the same level of detailed financial and operational data that publicly traded companies must disclose.

Edmonds notes that while Siegel’s letter highlights digital advertising, it doesn’t mention circulation revenue, which while a falling line item at almost all newspapers, is still a significant contributor for many. Add to that the fact that Advance’s newspaper websites are free, meaning they don’t reap digital subscription revenues the way a number of prominent newspapers now do.

And by publishing and/or home-delivering print newspapers fewer days in most of its markets, Advance has foregone print or bundled subscription price increases that “most of the rest of the industry” has enjoyed, Edmonds noted, adding that the industry overall saw successive 5% circulation revenue gains in 2012 and 2013, the most-recent available figures.

He does note that Advance has been right on two predictions: Newspaper “digital ad revenues could grow from a small base, and that print declines were irreversible. And in theory, it now has leaner operations well-positioned for growth into the future.”

Despite the thousands of jobs across the country that Advance has eliminated as part of “Digital First,” Siegel hinted that operations aren’t yet lean enough. “… this journey will take a little longer and be a little harder than we originally anticipated, which is why we continue to need to recalibrate our expenses,” he wrote.