Maybe the fourth time will be the charm, because the business media have turned the third declaration of Eastman Kodak's (EK) kodachrome comeback charm-less.
In order to understand, let's trace this story back before we talk about what happened Thursday, and then you'll all know why The Business Press Maven calls the business media the False Profits.
To set the stage: The Business Press Maven is a photography nerd/buff whose work has appeared in
The New York Times
and elsewhere and is actively rooting for Kodak's comeback.
Problem is, Kodak has arrived tragically late to the digital photography revolution and, despite recent moves, it remains a weighty beast that might be too big to turn as quickly as it needs to. Still, I am predisposed to believe signs of progress, especially since the company came out with a good line of easy-to-use digital cameras constructed for the real amateur.
But my favorable predisposition makes what we've seen from June up through yesterday all the worse.
In June, the company came out with a promotional press release about a new sensor that might make it possible to take better digital photographs in low light. Low-light shooting is an Achilles' heel of digital cameras and a sensor like this would have potential, if it truly works. Working would mean if it doesn't bump the price of cameras too bad and, given the pace of these things, competitors aren't about to come out with a way better one. Plus, even assuming Kodak makes a good run with it, will it budge such a big company?
The questions are endless, but the
articles that followed were nearly as promotional and unquestioning as the press release.
Then came August and one of the
worst jags of reporting on earnings it has been my displeasure to see. Are a lot of journalists photo buffs and sentimental fools for Kodak? It sure looked that way, because, as I catalogued, tons of headlines ran about Kodak swinging to a profit as more sales shift to digital. In fact, here was the puke-eminent example from
The Wall Street Journal
: "Kodak Swings to Profit As More Sales Shift to Digital Areas."
The headlines set my shutter speed aflutter, but then I actually read the earnings report. Hardly anyone highlighted the fact that the one-time sale of a health-care division contributed greatly to results. That digital victory? Ehh. Digital sales were up 3%, which is nothing to dismiss, but nothing that is going to save a giant, troubled company that is getting by at this point on a wing, prayer and cost cuts.
Then came Thursday, a day that brought more evidence of Kodak's overly favorable standing in the eyes of the business media. Any big, fatty operation like Kodak can cut costs for a long time. But you are almost never going to see evidence of a decisive, lasting comeback until revenue starts moving. That's because, while you can cut jobs and much else for a long time, you can't do it forever. At some point, you need revenue to rise. And if revenue stays stagnant, profitability tends to be fleeting.
But we saw something interesting in headlines. First, we had the majority, which only trumpeted the profits, epitomized by our own
Kodak Flashes to Profit."
Granted, the market was obviously weak yesterday, but then we got curious follow-up, puzzled takes as in the case of
here that profits could come but (gasp!) the stock price could fall: "
Kodak swings to profit but shares fall."
What gives? What gives is that professional investors know that without revenue growth, a return to profitability is a little like kissing your sister. Here's a headline that gives you a better idea of what is truly at hand: "
Eastman Kodak back to profit, while sales slip."
Now digital revenue was up 12%, which is in and of itself good news. But, with apologies to the False Profits of the business media who seem to be attempting to will Kodak back to its Nifty Fifty days, nothing exists in an earnings report in and of itself. Sure enough, traditional earnings were down 17%. The company benefited greatly from lower manufacturing costs and overly favorable coverage.
From Kodak, a company to which I am emotionally attached, let's skip over to newspapers, an industry to which I am emotionally and financially attached. I've written for the things for years. Alas, as I have made clear before, I would not invest in newspapers at gunpoint, but let's lay down a new cautionary tune right now.
Editor & Publisher
reported matter-of-factly that newspaper executives are trying to push markets to use total audience as a measuring stick instead of paid print circulation.
Nowhere in the article is the sad reality that nearly every time a company or industry has waged a campaign to get investors to concentrate on a new way to gauge a company numerically it is out of self-serving weakness and never ends well. The old look at eyeballs instead of profits preceding the dot-com bust certainly comes to mind here, but there are a million other examples that broke bad, including the infancy of cellphones, when companies badgered investors to concentrate on subscriber growth and cash flow and pay no attention to long-term debt.
Anyhow, among other things, these online readers they want to lump in with the meaningful ones to blur the distinction have little loyalty, scare up only fractions of pennies per view
and most essentially
are cannibalizing paid print circulation. Many (like me) have cancelled numerous print subscriptions to read stuff for free online. Call me equal with a $500 print subscriber who spends more than a quick hit-and-run with the publication and you call yourself crazy.
And, finally, who says history -- farcical or not -- does not repeat itself. Look at how this mortgage shenanigan quote from today's
, caught in an incriminating email, eerily echoes a prior email from the ever-popular dot-com bust years:
"'We have agreed to roll over and just do it,' eAppraiseIt's president wrote in an e-mail to senior executives at First American, the lawsuit says."
And this from
documents about Henry Blodget's infamous comments about Infospace:
"With respect to InfoSpace, Blodget wrote e-mails in which he reported 'enormous skepticism' about the company, and called its stock a 'powder keg.' Merrill Lynch's research reports on GoTo.com and InfoSpace did not reflect these and other privately-expressed negative views about the companies."
At the time of publication, Fuchs had no positions in any of the stocks mentioned in this column.
A journalist with a background on Wall Street, Marek Fuchs has written the County Lines column for The New York Times for the past five years. He also contributes regular breaking news and feature stories to many of the paper's other sections, including Metro, National and Sports. Fuchs was the editor-in-chief of Fertilemind.net, a financial Web site twice named "Best of the Web" by Forbes Magazine. He was also a stockbroker with Shearson Lehman Brothers in Manhattan and a money manager. He is currently writing a chapter for a book coming out in early 2007 on a really embarrassing subject. He lives in a loud house with three children. Fuchs appreciates your feedback;
to send him an email.