Audit Notes: Gannett profits, Spiegel grilling, private equity

At least Gannett is optimistic about the next few years, The Wall Street Journal reports (emphasis mine):

Gannett, publisher of USA Today and the largest U.S. newspaper network by circulation, reaffirmed last week it expects revenue to rise 2% to 4% annually and earnings growth to expand by 2015. Though its print advertising revenue fell 8.4% in the first quarter, the company said the latter end of the quarter was improving.

What are the profit-milking newspaper chain’s margins up to in the days of newspaper apocalypse?

As Heard on the Street colleague Miriam Gottfried wrote this week, Gannett’s margin of earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization for the newspaper division was 18.3% in 2011. That’s down from 29.6% in 2005 heydays but still not dead.

Meantime, Gannett reports that its paywall rollout is “progressing as anticipated” and projects it will add $100 million to operating profit next year. That’s a big deal if it turns out to be even half true. Adding that to its 2011 numbers would have boosted operating profit by 12 percent.

They’d better hope it does because Gannett plans to continue disgorging the cash to shareholders:

(CEO Gracia Martore) also reconfirmed that the company is on a path to return more than $1.3 billion to shareholders by 2015 through its previously announced $0.80 per share dividend and expanded share repurchase commitment of $300 million over the next two years.

(h/t Jeff Sonderman)

— Here are some of Der Spiegel’s comments/questions from its interview with deluded German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble on the euro crisis:

SPIEGEL: It almost sounds as if you had longed for the crisis so that you could finally correct the birth defects of the euro…

SPIEGEL: The call for more Europe has become almost as much a classic as “Faust”…

SPIEGEL: It sounds more like a new experiment, not unlike the introduction of the euro. And yet you want to transfer as much power as possible to Europe?

SPIEGEL: And you seriously believe that this could work?…

SPIEGEL: In your euphoria, you overlook the fact that most people in Southern Europe tend to see Brussels as a threat.

Now try to imagine an American journalist interviewing, say, Tim Geithner like this.

— Joe Nocera traced the private-equity history of Burger King in a good column this weekend:

Burger King has long been an enrichment scheme for clever financiers, who have sucked hundreds of millions of dollars out of it over the years. Maybe it will be different this time. Or maybe not.

Financial engineering has been part of the Burger King story for so long that it’s hard to believe there is still anything worth plucking from its carcass. “It’s been run as a cash cow for Wall Street,” said Bob Goldin, an executive vice president of Technomic, a food service consulting firm. Along the way it’s had 13 chief executives in 25 years, numerous strategy shifts and marketing campaigns — and has been constantly starved for cash. But, hey, the private equity guys got theirs. And isn’t that what really matters?…

But the private equity investors also cut themselves an incredibly sweet deal. Their $1.5 billion purchase price included only $210 million of their own money; the rest was borrowed. They immediately began taking out tens of millions of dollars in fees. Four years later, they took Burger King public. But, first, they rewarded themselves with a $448 million dividend. In all, according to The Wall Street Journal, “the firms received $511 million in dividend, fees, expense reimbursements and interest” — while still retaining a 76 percent stake.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,