New York Times Looking for Ad Bottom

The New York Times contributes to evidence that the ad recession has eased, but a bottom to this beleaugered market remains elusive.
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NEW YORK (TheStreet) - The New York Times (NYT) - Get Report offered further evidence Thursday that the advertising recession, which had pushed the newspaper business to the brink last year, continued to ease during the first quarter of 2010.

But that doesn't mean the future of for-profit news gathering and reporting, in textual form, has grown any clearer.

The Times, which operates largely as a national news brand and, as such, is unique within the newspaper trade, said its total advertising revenue (including both digital and print) declined 6.1% in the first quarter compared with a year ago.

That would seem to represent a positive trend, since ad sales had been declining on the order of 30% through much of last year.

Last week,

USA Today

publisher Gannett offered a similar view of the business

when it reported first-quarter results

, saying its ad revenue fell 8%, less worse than previous periods.

In her prepared statement, Times CEO Janet Robinson struck slightly more positive notes than she has in the last few quarterly reports going back to last summer. "In the first quarter, we experienced significant positive trending in both print and digital advertising revenues relative to the fourth quarter," she said. "As the quarter progressed we saw acceleration in the rate of advertiser spending."

But despite Robinson's words, a bottom to the market remains elusive. The slower pace of the advertising declines is largely due to the easier year-over-year comparisons, as 2009 was as difficult a year as the always-cyclical newspaper business has ever faced, double-whammied by the economy's travails and what many people view as an ongoing and epochal shift in the reading habits of the human race.

The rub is that print advertising, much more lucrative profit-margin-wise than its digital cousin, continues to suffer. The Times' print ad revenue fell 12.3% in the quarter. And while web ad sales jumped 18%, that's simply not enough to make up for the loss of the fat proceeds that used to come from selling display ads on the printed page.

Like the rest of the newspaper business, the Times is seeking to address that issue. It's in the midst of a much ballyhooed effort to

transform its web site from free-access into subscriber-based

. Four months after the company announced the shift, details remain scarce, but the site will use a so-called metered model, with different levels of access for a range of prices.

For the first quarter the Times reported adjusted earnings of 11 cents a share (which excludes proceeds from the sale of an asset and a health-care reform tax charge). Revenue fell 3% from a year ago to $588 million. Both figures surpassed analysts' expectations of a 5-cent profit per share on revenue of $578 million.

A year ago, the Times posted a loss of nearly $75 million.

-- Written by Scott Eden in New York

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Scott Eden has covered business -- both large and small -- for more than a decade. Prior to joining TheStreet.com, he worked as a features reporter for Dealmaker and Trader Monthly magazines. Before that, he wrote for the Chicago Reader, that city's weekly paper. Early in his career, he was a staff reporter at the Dow Jones News Service. His reporting has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Men's Journal, the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, and the Believer magazine, among other publications. He's also the author of Touchdown Jesus (Simon & Schuster, 2005), a nonfiction book about Notre Dame football fans and the business and politics of big-time college sports. He has degrees from Notre Dame and Washington University in St. Louis.