Earlier this year, Rupert Murdoch's media empire -- spanning television, newspapers, and Web sites across America and the Commonwealth -- split into two. Investors had pushed for the change, figuring that the broadcasting assets could do better without being shackled to the financially challenged publishing side. Murdoch finally acquiesced, but put a positive spin on it, declaring that the future of newspapers was bright.
Well, maybe, but there's not much evidence of it yet. The resulting television-focused company, 21st Century Fox, earlier this month reported strong revenue growth with profits hampered only by new investments in a sports network designed to rival ESPN. And Monday, the severed Newscorp disappointed analysts' already low expectations, with revenue declining 3 percent overall after poor advertising sales and a particularly huge drop in its Australian newspapers.
"We collectively recognize the need to evolve," said chief executive Robert Thomson, on the company's earnings call, talking up how the company is making progress on mobile and introducing new subscription models.
The new Newscorp isn't entirely bereft of non-publishing businesses. It's got a sports channel and a real estate advertising group down under that outperformed the rest of the company, and is investing in a new digital instruction business run by former New York City Schools chancellor Joel Klein that might generate returns down the road. But newspapers still account for 70 percent of its revenue, and that income stream declined 10 percent in its first quarter the company's standalone existence.
How does this model make any sense?
It's hard to say, as a general principle, whether largely traditional media companies do better or worse when married to other lines of business. Gannett, McClatchy, The Tribune Company, and the New York Times Company have endured punishing losses over the years as print advertising fell off a cliff; their digital sides are growing, but not fast enough yet to make up the difference. Similarly, prospects for Time Inc. after it's spun off from Time Warner seem less than bright (and yes, the Washington Post will need some serious revamping to become profitable now that it's been split from more lucrative affiliates). In the category of super-diversified companies that are better off, there's Bloomberg LP, which has a growing media group but still makes the vast majority of its money from Bloomberg terminals, and Thompson Reuters, which is also a professional services company first and a journalistic enterprise second.
To muddy the waters, though, the union of AOL and Time Warner back in 2000 did neither of them any favors, and the independent AOL is faring better after figuring out digital video (which Conde Nast is trying to do as well). Meanwhile, digital-first media companies like Atlantic Media, POLITICO, Buzzfeed, the Gawker Network, and Vox Media -- which recently bought a family of sites including Curbed, Eater, and Racked -- seem well positioned for growth. And of course, all the internet companies are now pushing into media, with Amazon's publishing and TV production, Netflix's original shows, Yahoo's news outfit, and Google's Youtube programming.
So the historical record doesn't tell us much about Newscorp's future. While having other revenue streams could theoretically give legacy media companies the running room to figure out how to transition to a digital future, there's no guarantee that they will. And maybe having no broadcasting backstop will give Newscorp's leadership the kind of urgency it might otherwise have been unable to muster.