With the recent finalization of Times Mirror Co.'s acquisition by Chicago-based Tribune Co., newspaper consolidation will be a major topic of discussion at this week's Mid-Year Media Review, a biannual newspaper-industry conference held in New York, bringing executives together with analysts and investors.
Investors say they want news about acquisition strategies, especially with Central Newspapers Inc. and papers owned by Hollinger International Inc., New York Times Co. and Journal Register Co. among those on the block. Gannett Co., the No. 1 U.S. publisher by circulation, is considered likely to buy several papers.
"The theme is going to be a continued talk about newspaper-industry consolidation," said Thomas Russo, a partner with Gardner Russo Gardner Investments. "You had the Times Mirror sale, which caught people by surprise, and it gained speed with the remarkable collection of newspapers announced for sale in the past six months."
Companies such as Thomson Corp. are selling newspapers to focus on the Internet. Proposed regulatory changes and advertising growth have increased the value of papers, which have become more attractive to buyers.
The Federal Communications Commission is considering whether to relax rules that prevent companies from owning both a newspaper and a TV or radio station in the same market. Media companies want to create regional groups to sell more ads and charge higher rates.
"At the moment, all eyes are on valuations in the private market," said Russo, whose firm owns shares of Central Newspapers, E.W. Scripps Co., Washington Post Co. and McClatchy Co. "You have the opportunity to continue to hold those non-complying properties until the TV station comes up for FCC review. You don't have to make a decision in the meantime."
Another hot topic at the conference, starting June 26 at Manhattan's Essex House, will be ad sales. Media companies including New York Times Co. and Dow Jones & Co. are expected to say that second-quarter results could beat estimates because advertising sales didn't slow as expected, analysts said.
After better-than-expected advertising sales in May, the companies are expected to discuss whether ad revenue will fall in the year's second half as predicted earlier this year or increase in the coming months.
"Newspaper companies have been enjoying a terrific quarter and a still-promising outlook," said analyst Leland Westerfield of PaineWebber Inc. "There is good news to be shared by the companies, and the current wave of consolidation is going to heighten the importance of this year's conference."
While ads are boosting revenue, newspapers also face increasing newsprint costs. Abitibi-Consolidated Inc., the world's largest newsprint maker, and Bowater Inc., the biggest U.S. newsprint maker, said this month they will increase newsprint prices Sept. 1 by 9 percent, or $50 a metric ton.
That will put prices at $605 a ton, their highest in four years, and it will be the third increase in 12 months, said analyst Edward Atorino at Wasserstein Perella Securities.
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