DFM is one of the largest experiments to try to breathe new life into established news outlets rooted in print media. What might JRC's continuing financial struggles portend for the future of such efforts?
It's looking likely that shuffling who owns JRC, at least on paper, may keep JRC afloat for now. DFM CEO John Paton wrote that JRC "has a signed stalking horse bid for Journal Register Company from 21st CMH Acquisition Co., an affiliate of funds managed by Alden Global Capital LLC."
Alden provided financial backing for DFM to form and take over management of MediaNews Group and JRC papers. The hedge fund manager also purchased JRC in 2011. So the current bankruptcy filing probably will have more impact on JRC's books than its day-to-day operations. For now.
Since JRC emerged from its 2009 restructuring, Paton wrote: "Digital revenue grew 235% and digital audience more than doubled... So far this year, digital revenue is up 32.5%. Expenses by year's end will be down more than 9.7% compared to 2009. At the same time, as total expenses were down overall, the Company has invested heavily in digital with digital expenses up 151% since 2009. But also from 2009 to 2011 Journal Register Company's print advertising revenue declined 19% -- and print advertising represents more than half of the of the Company's revenues."
The bottom line? It appears that despite the commitment of DFM and JRC to push heavily into digital-focused operations and business, the legacy obligations and business model of print media continue to constrain their ability to adapt and thrive.
Financial restructuring can give a company room to grow and change. But so far JRC still is foundering, and print seems to be a big part of what's weighing it down -- even though print is still bringing in most of JRC's revenue. For now.
In short, JRC doesn't love print so much anymore (in a business sense), but can't afford to leave it. That's a frustrating, risky point in any relationship.
JRC's digital growth is appreciable. It's possible that in this new restructuring, the company will move further away from print-reliant revenue streams and print-related expenses, and push even harder on digital strategies.
You don't need to be a big business in order to be a good, solid business. This principle motivates many community and niche news publishers, especially newer startups. But if the most sustainable size for a daily local or metro news operation ends up being closer to startup levels in terms of staffing and facilities, then companies as large as DFM (or even JRC) might find it hard to evolve quickly enough to continue to compete -- even if they're the most aggressive ones pushing the digital media envelope.
The News and Tools for Digital Innovators blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.