Wall Street's recent thumbs-up for E.W. Scripps ( SSP) could set the stage for another squabble between the investment community and a family trying to protect its newspaper publishing traditions. Shares of Scripps have jumped about 5% since the start of trading Wednesday after Joseph NeCastro, the company's chief financial officer, signaled to investors at a Citigroup conference that the media conglomerate was considering a move to ditch its newspaper businesses. "Newspapers seem to be much more troubled and it is hard to call a bottom there," said NeCastro. He said the company's management has been meeting with its board about "options for the newspaper side," adding that separating its other media properties from the newspapers is "clearly the most advantageous route" for the company. Tim Stautberg, a Scripps spokesman, declined to comment on the remarks. Scripps publishes newspapers in 18 markets, including the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn. But the lion's share of the company's profits now come from its relatively new cable channels, like the Food Network and HGTV, and its fast-growing Internet search engines, like Shopzilla.com. Only 29.5% of the company's revenue comes from its newspapers. Like Washington Post Co. ( WPO), which derives almost half its revenue and the bulk of its profits from its for-profit education business, Scripps downplays its long-standing reputation as a newspaper company to investors, calling itself a "diversified media concern."
"The management is keenly aware that this stock has been penalized for being a newspaper company, even though only one-quarter of it is newspapers now," says Edward Atorino, analyst with The Benchmark Company. But while newspaper publishing may be unfashionable on Wall Street these days, it remains a badge of honor for many of the family trusts that have maintained controlling stakes in major newspaper companies, even while the publishers have sold shares in the public markets and become sprawling conglomerates. Newspaper publishing at Scripps dates back to 1878, when Edward W. Scripps bought The Cleveland Penny Press, a paper that was published for low-income laborers. From there, the company was built into a media empire, and while it went public in 1988, the Scripps family still owns a reported 44% of the company through a trust and controls 87% of the votes that elect two-thirds of the directors on its board. Atorino says the Scripps family trust might complicate a sale of its newspaper assets. He compares the situation to that of New York Times ( NYT), which is controlled by the Ochs-Sulzberger family trust and has clashed with Wall Street recently. The Times has also rebuffed a push by Morgan Stanley Investment Management, which owns a 7.6% stake in the company, to change the dual-class share structure that keeps the family trust in control.
Shares of the Times have plunged about 37% over the last two years amid circulation declines and a stale advertising market. Also, consumers have increasingly turned to the Internet for their information needs, and while the company has taken steps to adopt the new medium into its business model, most of its revenue still comes from a business for which many people see a dark future. The company defends its strategy by portraying itself as a long-term strategist, resisting the short-term whims of Wall Street, but critics say it's controlled by a family that is putting its watchdog role in society above the interests of shareholders. Scripps, with its similar dual-class share, has language in the trust agreement that says "the trustees shall retain sufficient voting stock to control the company," which prevents the company from selling itself outright. Meanwhile, when the trust was created in the 1920's, Scripps was a newspaper company, so there is some legal question as to whether the trust can sell the company's newspapers under the agreement. Shares of Scripps have outperformed its beleaguered peers in newspaper publishing, gaining more than 10% over the last two years. That performance could give the trust ammunition to argue that the company should hang onto the newspapers and wait out the storm in the industry. But analysts on Wall Street take a different tack.
Goldman Sachs analyst Peter Appert said in a recent report that getting rid of Scripps' newspaper properties "would meaningfully enhance the company's growth prospects and likely translate into a higher valuation for the shares." If Appert is right and complications arise under the Scripps family trust agreement, investors could be headed for a disappointment. Nackey E. Scagliotti, a trustee for the trust, declined to comment on whether she and the two other trustees, Edward W. Scripps Jr. and Paul K. Scripps, would support a sale of the newspapers. The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Rocky Mountain News Managing Editor Deb Goeken said in a memo to staff on Wednesday that she wanted to reassure staffers "that there is no sale imminent." The Journal said she quoted the paper's editor, who said NeCastro was giving "an honest answer ... to a question that is being asked of every newspaper company in the industry." "It sounds like this is under really serious consideration, but I doubt anything will happen overnight," says Atorino. "This will take time. If they run into issues with the
Scripps family, they could simply spin off the newspapers to the trust."