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Toronto Sun and National Post newspapers are seen on a news stand in Toronto on October 6, 2014. Print circulation revenue fell 6.5 per cent and digital revenue slipped 4 per cent for the quarter. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)
Toronto Sun and National Post newspapers are seen on a news stand in Toronto on October 6, 2014. Print circulation revenue fell 6.5 per cent and digital revenue slipped 4 per cent for the quarter. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)

Postmedia reports major drop in revenues, Conrad Black scolds leaders Add to ...

After reporting yet another quarter of steep losses, Postmedia Network Canada Corp.’s leaders were publicly scolded Thursday by one of the company’s high-profile investors – Conrad Black.

The former proprietor of some of Postmedia’s newspapers, who is now a shareholder and writes a column for the flagship National Post, joined the usually tame conference call for analysts to urge for a re-investment in journalistic quality – while also lamenting the lack of trading in the company’s stock.

On Thursday morning, Postmedia reported its first public numbers since it acquired 175 Sun Media newspapers, specialty publications and digital assets from Quebecor Inc. for $316-million in April. Excluding the new assets, the company reported a 13.5-per-cent drop in revenues, including another year-over-year plunge in print advertising revenues.

Mr. Black argued that Postmedia’s only option is to spend its way out of decline by investing in stronger content.

“Some of [Postmedia’s] newspapers have deteriorated a long way from what I remember. Some of it you can’t avoid. Some of it you can. But please build the quality,” Mr. Black told executives on the call. “Otherwise, you’re going to retreat right into your own end zone, if you’ll pardon the sports metaphor.”

He couched his comments in “goodwill and constructiveness” and expressed support for the company and the Sun Media purchase. But he chided managers for doing “absolutely nothing” to spur interest in “an illiquid stock.”

“I’m very concerned that we’ve got our feet stuck in cement here,” he said.

Paul Godfrey, Postmedia’s president and CEO, insisted that’s not the case. The company is already investing to improve the Sun papers, he said, some of which he feels were neglected by Quebecor. And he pointed out that he is one of the company’s largest Canadian shareholders.

Postmedia’s class B shares closed at 80 cents on Thursday.

“You and I are aligned on the end goals here. What we may not be aligned on is how we get there,” Mr. Godfrey said, urging Mr. Black to be patient.

The Sun Media acquisition allowed Postmedia to book its first year-over-year revenue increase in 17 quarters, though the company still suffered steep losses thanks to a $151.2-million impairment charge on goodwill and other intangible assets, recorded after the company’s annual impairment testing. As a result, it reported a net loss of $140.8-million, or 84 cents a share, compared with $20.6-million or 51 cents a share in the same quarter last year.

Revenue was $205-million, up almost 20 per cent from $171-million from the same quarter last year. But excluding the Sun Media acquisition, revenue fell by $23.1-million year over year.

Print advertising revenues at the company continued to plunge, down 20.2 per cent from last year, excluding the Sun Media transaction, due to “weakness across all major advertising categories.” Print circulation revenue also fell 6.5 per cent, and even digital revenue, where the company is most hopeful it can find some growth, slipped 4 per cent for the quarter.

“We have yet to see any sign suggesting a sustainable period of improvement on the digital side,” said Aravinda Galappatthige, an analyst at Canaccord Genuity Group Inc., in a research note ahead of Thursday’s results.

Cost-cutting from the quarter will save another $5-million annually, wrapping up a three-year “transformation program” that slashed $136-million, or 20 per cent, from yearly operating costs. And the company now plans to cut an estimated $50-million more by the end of the 2017 fiscal year, largely by shedding salaries and reconfiguring printing and distribution.

“That, combined with an aligned sales force and a strong senior leadership team … tasked with the accelerating new revenue streams, form the cornerstones of our strategy for the quarter and the year ahead,” Mr. Godfrey told analysts.

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