NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Forget new media, old media and all the media in between. My question is: When it comes to making money by putting words on a page, is there anything left in media businesses at all?
Never mind slogging through the dark and stormy East Coast weather over the past couple of months; my annual spring trek through text-on-page media companies' annual statements has been a hate mission like none I can remember.
Save for a major exception or two, which basically boils down to Facebook (FB), 2013 shaped up to be the year when, no matter which large media company tree I climbed, it sure felt like big limbs were about to come down.
Over and over again, there were stubborn, fundamental, multi-year trends of near-zero net earnings, wonky or feeble operating performance and truly dubious management calls, indicating some publishing companies are facing even dimmer prospects ahead.
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Here then -- if you have the guts -- are my ghoulish snapshots of my big wander through what has become a dark and chilly media forest.
New Media No Better Than Old
Even after nearly 10 years of migration to digital platforms, the annual performance of traditional print media companies is simply awful. The year 2013 featured an "Annual Profit Margin Less than Zero" Club including, as far as I can see, Lee Enterprises (LEE), GateHouse Media (GHSEQ) and The E.W. Scripps Company (SSP). And let's keep in mind that the "Pretty Darn Close to Zero" Club -- where net margins were effectively at or below the 5% global inflation rate -- is also jam-packed with such storied brands as The McClatchy Company, News Corp. (NWSA - Get Report) and The New York Times (NYT - Get Report).
Even more ominous, the publishing and media firms that actually managed to show profits still moved in the wrong net-margin direction year over year. Gannett (GCI), Journal Communications (JRN) and Daily Journal Corporation (DJCO) all saw profit margins slide from 2012 to 2013. Gannett, for example, saw profits fall by 9% year over year.
And 2013 was a bull market. How does that happen to advertiser-driven businesses?
New media companies were absolutely no healthier. No less than AOL (AOL) -- which, let's keep in mind, features such top Web properties as The Huffington Post -- is also a card-carrying member of the "Pretty Darn Close to Zero" Earnings Club. Believe it or not, this Web bellwether somehow spent roughly $2.2 billion of the $2.3 billion it made in 2013, leaving just $92 million in profit.
Does anybody see the miracle of the frictionless, no-cost media Web? I do not.