Back in 1993, The New York Times Company bought the Globe for about $1.8 billion (adjusted for inflation). Four years ago it put the paper up for sale and got a top bid of about $35 million. That 97 percent drop in value was too much to swallow, and it called off the sale process.
After its brush with Carlos Slim’s usury during the financial crisis, the NYT has gone on a selling spree, unloading its regional media group of 16 papers for a measly $143 million. It sold About.com last year for $300 million or about $180 million less (again, in real dollars) than it paid for the site seven years earlier. The best investment the company made? An 18 percent stake in the Boston Red Sox it bought in 2002 and sold in the last couple of years for $180 million, a 90 percent real gain.
Now the NYT is putting its New England Media Group, which contains the Globe and Worcester Telegram & Gazette, up for sale again.
If the NYT succeeds in unloading the Globe and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, the company will then consist solely of The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, which is the Times’s global edition. It will be a company will be a pure-play bet on the institution of the Times.
The big questions now are how much money the Globe loses or makes a year, and whether the NYT will sell it to the highest bidder, regardless of who it is. Back in 2009, the Journal reported that the Globe was expected to have an operating loss of $85 million that year. That number has surely gone down dramatically since then, but the future of the Globe’s newsroom will depend on just how far it has. Bloomberg reports that the Times will actually hold on to the pension liabilities to increase the sale price for the two newspapers, which is interesting.
By putting the New England group up for sale, the Times is drawing a bright line between the prospects it sees for a national paper and for regional papers. The NYT’s earnings reports are an example of how much harder the regional newspaper business is. While the Times actually increased revenue last year on the strength of its circulation strategy, the New England papers continued to shed sales. Circulation revenue was even down when excluding the extra week last year.
That’s in part because the paywall strategy at the Globe was poorly designed, which is bizarre given the huge success the Times has had with its own model.
The gorgeous bostonglobe.com has a hard paywall (with limited exceptions) and it competes with the free boston.com, which the Globe helps supply with content. It has gathered about 28,000 digital-only subscribers so far, bringing in at most around $6 million a year. The paper is reportedly altering its strategy somewhat, but it should look at merging the two sites and moving them to a meter model, while boosting print prices.
It’s worth remembering that Aaron Kushner, who bought the Orange County Register last year and invested in it by, among other things, increasing its newsroom by half, tried to buy the Globe a couple of years ago. But there aren’t very many Aaron Kushners out there.