It May Prove A Brief Respite, But Newspapers Signal Healthy Near-Term Ad Outlook

A day after one of Madison Avenue's most respected forecasters - Zenith Optimedia CEO John Perriss --issued a dour long-term outlook for the newspaper industry, some of the nation's biggest regional newspaper companies on Tuesday said they were cautiously optimistic that the advertising economy was finally turning around in their sector.

Executives told Wall Street analysts and investors during the second day of a weeklong advertising/media conference that they expected single-digit growth in advertising revenues for the coming year. While most wouldn't get more specific than that - and one, Lee Enterprises, declined to make any predictions at all - it's a pleasant departure from the gloomy, wishin'-and-hopin' attitudes that have marked a lot of newspaper gatherings since the beginning of the bust in 2001.

First, the newspaper companies showed positive growth in advertising revenues in November. At the McClatchy Co., which owns regional newspapers like the Sacramento (Calif.) Bee and the Star-Tribune in Minneapolis, Minn., said Tuesday that advertising revenues rose 3.6 percent to $837.2 million in November. Journal Register, who has clusters of newspapers in greater Philadelphia and Cleveland, as well as Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York, reported a 1 percent increase in advertising revenues.

At Dallas-based Belo, which owns newspapers from Rhode Island to California as well as other media in Texas and elsewhere, advertising revenues rose 6.3 percent in November. Chief Financial Officer Dunia Shive said that the advertising growth seems to have continued into December, which will finish up at about 3 percent compared to December 2002.

Belo Chairman/Chief Executive Officer Robert Decherd said that the company was being held back in part by the poor job market in Dallas - which is worse than the overall state of Texas, which is in itself worse than the overall United States. He said that Belo had "glimmers of hope" that there's a turnaround in employment advertising in Dallas, but it's still hope. And that multimillion chunk of business at the Dallas Morning News hurts.

"Like many newspapers, we took a very dramatic hit from classified employment advertising," Decherd said.

Mary Junck, who is chairman, president, and chief executive officer of Davenport, Iowa-based Lee Enterprises, declined to provide guidance for 2004. But she allowed that the U.S. economy seemed to be getting healthier. Lee's revenues rose 7 percent in November.

"No one is declaring victory at this point, but it seems a little better," Junck said.

On Monday, Zenith's Perriss predicted the newspaper industry would show reasonable gains as part of a rising tide generated by the overall advertising recovery and by 2004's "quadrennial effect," but he said that would be a temporary event and that the long-term prognosis for newspapers would be declining advertising market share.

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