Saturday, April 25, 2009


Failure isn’t what it used to be. Bankrupt newspaper companies are following the lead of AIG and Lehman Brothers and rewarding executives with large bonuses. The Tribune Co. is trying to pay out $13 million in bonuses, the Journal Registers Co. is trying to pay $2 million, and Philadelphia Newspapers has already given hundreds of thousands in bonuses to its corporate officers.

Company spokesmen say the bonuses make good business sense by rewarding good performance and keeping executives from leaving the companies. Both arguments are hollow. The first rationale rewards performance in running the companies into the ground and the retention rationale assumes other newspaper companies are hiring and would want to hire the tainted executives.

The issue of bonuses has emerged because newspapers filing for bankruptcy are not liquidating, but using Chapter 11 to create reorganization plans that will allow them to change the terms of the debt and union contracts. They have to seek approval from the bankruptcy court for their expenditures.

It is true that most of the papers in these bankrupt companies are making operating profits, but their corporate parents are losing money. The fact that profits exist are one of the reasons the companies have been petitioning the bankruptcy courts to allow them to pay bonuses. Not surprisingly, company debt holders—including states that are owned taxes—are not too happy with the idea and employees who have suffered layoffs and wage concessions are rightfully resentful.

The bonus debacle is yet another indication that the bankruptcies were created in the board rooms and corporate offices, not by the economic downturn. Poor corporate and management decisions are their root problem.

The newspaper business is clearly hurting because of the recession, but it is not a unique phenomenon. About once a decade for the past 50 years, recessions have played havoc with newspaper revenues, but the industry has survived them. Poor economic times, however, push companies whose managers have not paid sufficient attention to their balance sheets into financial crises and bankruptcy.

The last time we saw such wholesale problems was in 1991-1993 recession. Ingersoll fell into insolvency in 1991 and was broken up after its use of junk bonds for financing backfired. The New York Daily News went into bankruptcy that year as part of the collapse of the Robert Maxwell house of cards. United Press International went into bankruptcy in that recession as well. All three were victims to poor managerial choices made earlier and their positions became untenable in the recession.

History is repeating itself.

The bankruptcies today are the result of companies surpassing their financial capabilities and because executives have exceeded their own abilities to manage the firms. Some newspaper executives unwisely loaded their companies with enormous debt to make acquisitions and others are in trouble because the cumulative weight of poor management over a period of time has finally caught up with them.

Most newspapers, however, are surviving the downturn and will be serving their communities for many years. They are responding to the poor advertising climate with responsibility and thrift--NOT by giving executive bonuses that should be used for strengthening their businesses.