New York Times Execs: We're Ready for Murdoch, OK?

New York Times Execs: We're Ready for Murdoch, OK?
New York Times Execs: We're Ready for Murdoch, OK?

Rupert Murdoch wasn't actually a participant in The New York Times Co.'s (NYT) first-quarter earnings call, but he might as well have been, so large did the News Corp. (NWS) chairman's presence loom.

Even before analysts began hammering Times Co. executives with questions about how they plan to handle the challenge posed by The Wall Street Journal's push into local news, the company's leaders were reeling off ways in which the Times has the upper hand, from its three Pulitzer Prizes this year (versus none for the Journal) to its dominance in national advertising. The message was clear: Murdoch isn't the only one who can play the chest-pounding game.

"We don't shy away from the competition," said CEO Janet Robinson during the Q&A. "We never have and we never will. We fully understand how to compete, and in fact, we enjoy it."

The "Lead Dog" Bares Its Teeth

Robinson then launched into a lengthy, point-by-point comparison of the Times and the Journal meant to highlight the former's advantages: The Times has a total audience of 22 million in print and online, versus 13 million for the Journal; it has a higher proportion of female readers; 45% of Journal readers already read the Times*. Even though this was in answer to a unscripted question, Robinson had clearly prepared her remarks ahead of time, and at one point could even be heard turning a page.

"These are the facts, and I think they speak for themselves," she concluded. "When you're the lead dog, people are constantly going to be going after you."

Earlier in the presentation, Scott Heekin-Canedy, president and general manager of the Times, fielded a question about whether the Journal's attempt to entice local New York City advertisers with ultra-discounted ad rates was undermining the Times's own rates. "We're seeing pressure, but we don't believe it's so far having any effect on our business," he said. "We've seen these kinds of tactics before from the Journal and other competitors, and we believe we can manage through the rate pressure."

Largely lost in the focus on Murdoch was the fact that the Times Co. reported strong results that beat analysts' estimates. The first-quarter profit of $12.8 million marked a major improvement from the loss of $74.5 million in first-quarter 2009. Turmoil in other industries helped to buoy the company's performance, according to CFO James Follo: Advertising from cable companies and media conglomerates locked in carriage disputes contributed to gains in print ad revenues, as did a campaign by Toyota meant to reassure consumers about the safety of its cars.

Correction: I misheard Robinson as saying 75%. The correct number is 45%.