Trump Attack on New York Times Proves There's No Such Thing as Bad Publicity

Bad news has been good news for newspapers. 

While New York Times Co. (NYT) is fending off Donald Trump's charge that it is losing thousands of subscribers because coverage of his campaign was "very poor and highly inaccurate," shares of the publicly traded stock have jumped nearly 11% since the Republican Party swept national elections on Nov. 8. 

Gannett (GCI) -- the country's largest newspaper owner, which recently abandoned a pursuit of Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times owner Tronc (TRNC) -- is feeling a similar bounce, having surged almost 18% in the days following the election. McClatchy (MNI) , owner of the Miami Herald and The Sacramento Bee, has gained nearly 13%.

The uptick in newspaper stocks might be best described as a "reflex bounce," Noble Financial media analyst Michael Kupinski said via email.

Heading into the election, New York Times shares had fallen 17% amid the year's unusual decline in political advertising, adding to overarching sentiment that legacy print publishers are ill-suited for the digital economy. Gannett stock had fallen 49% heading into the election, mirroring the struggles of TV station groups such as Sinclair Broadcasting (SBGI) , Tegna (TGNA) and Gray Television (GTN) , all beset by the the drop-off in political spending.

"Much like the broadcast stocks, the newspaper stocks were oversold," Kupinski said. "As widely reported, both the Trump and Clinton campaigns spent less money than the past presidential elections. Yet core advertising seems to be holding, a theme that is benefiting the newspapers stocks."

Indeed, New York Times posted a third-quarter profit that far exceeded expectations as digital advertising increased during the three-month period ended Sept. 30 after having fallen in the first half of the year compared with the first six months of 2015. More impressive, the company added nearly twice as many digital subscribers during the quarter as it had in the previous period.

All told, the 21% jump in digital advertising sales meant that the paper owner's overall revenue dropped a mere 1% in the third quarter. For newspaper owners, that's a sign for celebration, offering weight to CEO Mark Thompson's sales pitch that the company is successfully making the long and hard transition to being a digital-first news operation.

In the past year, the number of New York Times digital-only subscribers paying $10 to $15 per month has grown to 1.6 million, pushing its total circulation to more than 2 million -- the largest in its history.

Yet the election's results called into question the media's own reporting on the election and whether Trump's popularity, especially in the historically Democratic manufacturing regions of the Midwest, had been underappreciated by a press corps critical of the candidate's incendiary comments about women, immigrants and his various opponents. 

Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. sought to address the criticism by proclaiming in a letter to its readers on Sunday that the newspaper would "rededicate ourselves to the fundamental mission of Times journalism."  

While 21st Century Fox's (FOXA) Fox News used Sulzberger's letter to charge that the Times "blew it," the newspaper was quick to counter the president-elect's claim that it was "losing thousands of subscribers" as a result of campaign coverage that included forecasting a victory for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

"In fact, it's quite the opposite," New York Time spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said Monday. "We've seen net growth in both print and digital subscriptions that is four times higher than from the previous quarter and from the same period a year ago."

The Times reiterated earlier this month that it plans to spend $50 million over the next three years to grow its digital audience worldwide. The focus, Thompson said, will be on attracting paid online subscribers outside the U.S. as the company seeks to double its internet revenue over the next four years.

Trump's broadside on the Times, and his hiring of Steve Bannon, editor of the right-wing Breitbart website as chief strategist, bolsters the view that publishers of all kinds may benefit from what promises to be a peppery political environment for some time.

Investors continued to mark the Trump election on Monday by pushing the Dow Jones Industrial Average to yet another intraday record on Monday, trading up to 18,934.05, although the index was down slightly by afternoon. Stocks picked up from last week in a broad-market "reflex bounce," evidence that despite the election of a former reality-TV star with no previous political experience, life goes on.

The four-day embrace of New York Times shares since the election has helped trim the company's 2016 decline to 7%. That the publisher remains in the red for the year is a reminder that while its online traffic is likely to continue to enjoy a post-election bounce, challenges remain, most notably in print advertising.

Newspaper advertising is forecast to fall to $5 billion by 2019 from a peak of $49 billion in 2005, according to ad agency Magna Global. 

"Advertising is holding up, but not going gangbusters," Kupinski said. "As such, I would expect that the strong performance may fizzle and that the stocks will settle into a more appropriate valuation range in the very near term."

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