New York Times suspends dividend

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Yesterday, The New York Times announced that it is eliminating its quarterly dividend. Following the announcement three months ago that the Times was reducing its dividend from 23 cents to 6 cents per share, this further eroded confidence in the company, dropping the stock's value from $3.71 to $3.51 per share.

At this point, it is worth noting that a share of stock in the Times is cheaper than a copy of its Sunday paper.

While six cents may not seem like much, those pennies are very significant for the Ochs-Sulzberger family, which controls the Times and receives most of its income (over $25 million annually) from stock dividends. However, the combination of declining ad revenues and over $1 billion in debt has crippled the paper. The decision to eliminate the dividend will save the Times $35 million; combined with the previous reduction, this number jumps to $133 million annually.

The Times is hoping that the combination of dividend savings, a $250 million loan from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, and a sell-leaseback agreement on its Manhattan headquarters will be sufficient to save it from the wolves. Most analysts and commentators disagree, and many are already drafting obituaries for the venerable Gray Lady.

Ultimately, this move is indicative of a broader problem: simply speaking, the age of the hardcopy newspaper is over. The entire industry is feeling the pinch: media firms the McClatchy Co. and Media General Inc. have already eliminated dividends, and the Tribune Co., owners of The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times, has already filed for bankruptcy.

The Times, like most papers, has two major costs, both of which are considerable. The first is the accumulation, organization, and writing of the news. The core responsibility (and competence) of the paper, this cannot be subcontracted to a press service and, ultimately, it cannot be replaced. This is the portion of the Times that the Ochs-Sulzberger family needs to save.

The second major cost is the process of printing, distributing and selling the news. Using a 15th century technology, the Times produces a copy of the paper that is useful for exactly one day, after which it becomes birdcage liner. They then send this heavy, expensive artifact around the world, at a considerable cost. In fact, as The Business Insider notes, the Times' could cut its current subscription costs in half by buying a Kindle reader for every one of its customers.

Ultimately, the Times must find a way to divorce its core responsibility from its distribution method; in McLuhan terms, it needs to separate the message from the medium.

As The Christian Science Monitor's recent decision to go to a web-only model suggests, the era of the daily hardcopy paper is rapidly drawing to a close. Unfortunately, for traditional news organizations like the Monitor and the Times to survive, they will need to start charging for online content. Given the free content model that internet users are used to, this will be a tough sell.

However, as Time magazine's Walter Isaacson recently wrote, traditional media has survived with a three-tier advertising/subscription/point-of-sale model. If the Times can find a way to replicate this model in a post-hardcopy world, it may yet survive to report another day.
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