Did 'Times' Price Surge Trigger Circ Drop?

In the just-ended third quarter, the New York Times Company claimed a 22% decrease in newsprint costs. At the same time, they claimed that operating costs are down only 1.5%. We think that's fishy! Here's why. Newsprint and payroll are typically two of the biggest expenditures at a newspaper. The company is claiming an 8% savings based on "reduction in consumption." Cutting its page size might play a part in that, but isn't entirely responsible. We suspect circulation took a hit somewhere.

The company touts its 3.9% quarterly increase in circulation revenue, about $8.4 million, but this is probably a pretty soft number. This quarter past, the paper raised the newsstand price of the Sunday paper in the greater metro area, and increased home delivery prices, and raised prices for the daily paper nationwide at the newsstand.

If they were able to hold their readers, we think that circulation revenue would have been much, much higher. As we've seen at the tabloids in New York, newsstand price can cause a serious drop in sales.

Now, the paper knows a lot more about its own finances than we do—if we're misconstruing things, we're happy to hear from folks who are in-the-know.

But it seems to us that the Times seems to be seriously missing the mark in their "ongoing program of focusing costs and efficiency," in the words of spokesperson Catherine Mathis. If operating costs are down only 1.5%, they're either spending a boatload of money on something they're not telling anyone about (office greenery? Kidding!) or they're just plain undisciplined, fiscally speaking.

Some analysts are making much of the company's earnings going from 6 to 10 cents a share, but their total earnings so far this year are still 40% less than last year. Either way, that cash isn't going back into the shareholders' pockets.

The company claimed total quarterly revenues of $754.4 million and total operating costs of $726.3 million. That leaves a profit of $28.1 million for the quarter. That's pocket change. (One major investor already bolted for the aisles.)

Now sure, we'd take it! It's not pocket change to us, but to a $3.3 billion-dollar publicly-traded company? That's just the cost of one apartment at 770 Park Avenue. And not even a particularly good one.