There's an old saying among the chattering classes: Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one. But for at least the last year and a half, the question has been: Who would want to?
Over the past three months, though, a strong rally in newspaper stocks suggests that there might be life yet in a business long pronounced dead by many investors and pundits.
Everyone knows the story line: The Internet plus Google plus the financial crisis plus the recession equaled a host of presses either on the brink of bankruptcy or fully in it. Investors fled newspaper stocks to such a degree that, at one point, a share of McClatchy (MNI - Get Report) cost less than the cover price of one of its dailies (the Fresno Bee, for example).
The death of another industry was being mourned; the obits writers were filing their copy.And then came this summer. In their second-quarter earnings conference calls, executives at several companies -- USA Today publisher Gannett (GCI - Get Report), the New York Times (NYT - Get Report) and McClatchy chief among them -- hinted that the worst had arrived and, along with it, a bottom to the most vicious ad recession in the history of newspapering. All those layoffs -- more than 30,000 industrywide since mid-2007, according to some estimates -- and all that cost-cutting produced earnings that surprised just about everyone. Meanwhile, the Fed chimed in to say the recession was "likely over." Momentum traders sought out beaten-down cyclical stocks as improving economic-data trickled in. Stocks rose, credit markets thawed, and debt-ridden newspaper companies were able to refinance. Stocks went higher still. Shorts got squeezed. The result? Times shares up 74% since July. A.H. Belo (AHC - Get Report) up 255%. Gannett 290%, Journal Communications (JRN) 326%, Lee Enterprises (LEE - Get Report) 470%, McClatchy 555%.