It’s always a give away when a media company starts restricting the flow of information on its own financial wellbeing — you know there’s some awfully big pressures internally at management and board level about the faltering state of the group, and so it was with the New York Times overnight and its 4th quarter profit report.

The Times is the first big US newspaper to report its financial results this week. Others, including USA Today publisher Gannett Co and Media General report tonight and tomorrow, with falls in earnings and ad revenues expected. Earlier this week, the struggling McClatchy Company halved its first quarter dividend to 9 cents a share and suspended quarterly dividend payments from then on indefinitely “in order to preserve cash for debt repayment.”

The Times cut its dividend by 74% last year to try and conserve cash ahead of the debt repayment and to counter falling revenues and earnings. Advertising in its News Media Group fell 18.4% to $US468 million in the fourth quarter and digital advertising across the company fell 3.5% after growing almost 15% in the first nine months of 2008 — a sharp turnaround.

The company said in a conference call that the decline in print ads had accelerated this month from December sharp fall. As a result US analysts were told that the company will stop reporting monthly revenue releases and disclose sales only on a quarterly basis. The hope is to try and take some of the pressure off the company, especially in the run up to the May deadline for a $US400 million debt repayment. The Times‘ quarterly profit report won’t change, but the company is dropping its monthly statement on revenues.

The Times reported fourth quarter net income from continuing operations falling to $US27.6 million from $US53 million a year earlier, dragged lower by severance charges and a write-down of assets. As of the end of December, the company had $US57 million in cash and $US1.1 billion in debt. It has a $US400 million credit facility that needs to be paid out or rolled over (if possible) in may.

That’s why its trying to sell the 17.75% interest in New England Sports Ventures, the Red Sox holding company, for a reported $US200 million. It is also near a deal to sell its stake in its New York headquarters for up to $US225 million.

The newspaper publisher is borrowing $US250 million from Mexican billionaire, Carlos Slim, via an issue of non voting securities paying an exorbitant 14% a year in interest. The Times would use proceeds from these deals to pay down debt.

The New York Times Company said quarterly profit was lower because of a fall in advertising revenue: its desire to sell its stake in the Boston Red Sox baseball team, which diverted attention from the poor financial picture to a positive one of trying to raise new money from asset sales.

The Times said ad sales will worsen further, and also revealed a $US625 million shortfall in its pension obligations. But shares rose 7.5% on confirmation of the planned sale of the Red Sox stake and better-than-expected cost cutting.

The company said that fourth-quarter 2008 operating profit from continuing operations decreased to $63.3 million from $101.5 million in the 2007 fourth quarter. Excluding depreciation and amortisation and the special items noted below, operating profit from continuing operations decreased to $118.5 million from $159.2 million in the 2007 fourth quarter.

CEO, Janet Robinson said in a statement:

As the economy deteriorated in the quarter, advertisers significantly reduced their spending. After growing almost 15% in the first nine months of last year, digital advertising decreased 3.5% in the fourth quarter as online marketers cut back on display ads in response to worsening business conditions. Despite the deepening recession, our circulation revenues increased 3.7% as a result of higher prices at The New York Times, The Boston Globe and our smaller newspapers.

But not higher sales.

Peter Fray

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