Your company wouldn’t tell us. It didn’t have to, since it isn’t public and thus faces less onerous disclosure requirements than one listed on a stock exchange. But that struck me then, and continues to strike me now, as odd. In my 13 years as an editor at the Wall Street Journal, I can’t remember hearing a CEO talk so specifically about progress in percentage terms and reveal so little in hard numbers. Indeed, companies that don’t have to divulge numbers often don’t bother to.
Instead, it seemed like Journal Register wanted to have it both ways, promoting impressive growth figures while refusing to provide the data that would give those numbers context.
As a result, we didn’t give much ink to Journal Register in our report. We did say this: “The company does not provide data on revenue, costs, or other metrics as a publicly traded firm would. Paton says his investors don’t want to disclose too much.”
And, that got your attention.
Shortly after the report was published in May 2011, you fired off an email to me, saying it was “unbelievable” we would focus on your cost-cutting efforts, disputing a quote that we did use and noting that, as a private company, you couldn’t tell us more. You also invited me to look at your company’s internal data, but under the umbrella of a strict nondisclosure agreement (which I wouldn’t sign). Finally, you did email me this prediction: “We will be within 1 percent of replacing every lost print ad dollar this year with digital ad dollars. A first anywhere.”
That prediction didn’t come true, and I’m sorry it didn’t. You and your colleagues deserve a lot of credit for aiming so high.
I don’t think you erred in pushing your company so far, so fast. But I do think that your sell of statistics that were based in percentages, not hard numbers, provided a patina of optimism when a more realistic view—or even a less transparent one—would have better served your interests.
I am regularly amazed that so many journalists trumpet companies’ growth statistics with so little context. That tells me that reporters and editors aren’t pushing hard enough, and perhaps, journalism schools aren’t being rigorous enough. We need to do a better job of encouraging journalists to be skeptical, even when they’re writing about companies in the same industry that employs them.
I hope that Digital First can emerge from this latest challenge better equipped to cope with the significant headwinds that affect local media companies. That would be greatly encouraging to all of us who care about this business.
(Further reading: Ryan Chittum digs out the numbers behind the JRC bankruptcy.)