Murdoch's Teflon margins: Even with Dow Jones aboard, News Corp's newspapers still look good

If you work at Wapping, what should you think of News Corporation’s full-year results? Here’s the stuff investor relations would like you to shout about:

  • Revenue up by 9%
  • Operating profit up by 18%
  • Q4 net income per share up 27%

Yadda-yadda. So is everything really rosy in the garden? Given News Corp’s typically miserly approach to disclosure, it’s hard to say.

In particular, News Corp’s second-quarter earnings release is studiedly guarded about progress at Dow Jones, which became part of the P&L in Q1.

It tells us, for example, that Dow Jones generated $48m in operating profit before amortization and depreciation during News Corp’s Q4 (Q2 in calendar terms).

But it doesn’t tell us how much Dow Jones generated in revenues. As a result, there’s no way to assess the unit’s margin performance.

There’s probably a very good reason for this.

Last year, before the acquisition of Dow Jones, News Corp’s newspapers generated margins of 20.9%.

Any hint that these profits are being diluted by Rupert Murdoch’s high-priced acquisition would have enraged investors and analysts.

Happily, this week’s year-end results from News Corp don’t offer any real evidence of dilution.

Even with Dow Jones & Company on board for two quarters, News Corp’s newspaper division still managed to generate operating margins of 19.2% during the 12 months to 30 June.

It might not look like much, but this is really quite a feat.

The important point to remember is that pre-Murdoch Dow Jones was a dog (there’s no other word for it) in terms of profitability.

In Q307, for example, the company generated operating profits of $40.9m on revenues of $493.3m. That’s a paltry operating margin of 8.2%.

Historically, it was never much better.

  • Q207: 12.5%
  • Q107: 7.5%
  • Q406: 13.1%
  • Q306: 3.3%

The question is this: how has News Corp managed to shoehorn such a large and underperforming asset into its newspaper division without hammering its own margins?

Dow Jones was a biggish acquisition in revenue terms. Its $1.8bn annual revenue base compares with News Corp’s pre-acquisition newspaper-related revenues (for 2007) of $4.5bn.

And yet. . . despite absorbing the big revenues and poor profitability of Dow Jones, News Corp’s margins have barely registered the impact. Here’s what’s been happening on a quarterly basis:

News Corp newspaper margins Q208: (with DJ) — 19.2%

News Corp newspaper margins Q108: (with DJ) — 17.9%

News Corp newspaper margins Q407 (without DJ) — 21.3%

News Corp newspaper margins Q307 (without DJ) — 18.7%

News Corp newspaper margins Q207 (without DJ) — 23.4%

News Corp newspaper margins Q107 (without DJ) — 20.3%

(NB: These margins are calculated before depreciation and amortization)

Yes, there’s a small dent visible in the margin during Q108, the quarter in which Dow Jones was included within News Corp’s numbers for the first time. But apart from that, the margin performance looks unbroken.

How have Murdoch & Co. managed this feat? The answer to the question — I suspect — falls into two parts:

1) They’ve been pressing every possible button in a bid to increase margins at Dow Jones & Company (not terribly surprising).

2) They’ve been stripping costs out of every other News Corp-owned newspaper worldwide.

Is Rupert Murdoch’s obsession with the Wall Street Journal going to weaken The Sun, the News of the World, The Times and the Sunday Times? Does the competition have an opportunity to benefit from this in the short and medium term?

My guess is that the answer to both of these questions is yes — notwithstanding recent largesse in terms of new print plants, redesigns and a “permanent” 5p cut in the price of The Sun.

Dow Jones won’t get fixed overnight. Until it does, the rest of the Murdoch empire will almost certainly need to share the burden of rebuilding it.

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