The valuation gap between high tech and media companies has never been wider. The erosion  of their revenue model might be the main culprit, but management teams, unions and boards of directors also bear their heavy share of responsibility. 

Two weeks ago, with a transaction that reset the value of printed assets to almost nothing, the French market for newsmagazines collapsed for good. Le Monde acquired 65% of the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur for a mere €13.4m ($18m), at a valuation of €20m ($27m). In fact, thanks to convoluted transaction terms, Le Monde will actually disburse less than €10m for its controlling share.

This number is a hard fact, it confirms the downward spiral of French legacy media values. For a while, rumors have been flying about bids for prominent newsmagazines that would float around €20m. At the same time, Lagardère Groupe (a €7bn media conglomerate based in Paris) put most of its French magazines on the block, saying it would close them down if no buyer showed up. It turned out to be a “good” way to tip potential bidders, they can now sit and wait for prices to come down as balance sheets continue to deteriorate. This brilliant strategy is attributable to Arnaud Lagardère, the son of Jean-Luc Lagardère, the swashbuckling group founder. The heir is fond of tennis, top-models and embarrassing statements. He once said of himself: “Maybe [he] is incompetent, but not dishonest” — definitely right on the first count. Today, Lagardère Groupe faces a negative value for a large part of its magazine portfolio, meaning it is willing to actually pay the buyer willing to acquire a publication.

I discussed this situation with financial analysts in Paris and London. They are unforgivingly critical of the causes for this unprecedented value depletion. For a start, newsweeklies paid the price of deteriorating copy sales (roughly -15% for 2013) and of an anemic advertising market. But the real sin, these analysts point out, is the delay in transforming and restructuring companies. One put it bluntly:  “It is clear there won’t be a single euro left for shareholders who didn’t do their job. Today, every acquisition on the French market is first and foremost weighed down by the need for a costly restructuring, which, in addition, will take three or for times longer than in the UK or elsewhere in Europe”.

The case of Le Nouvel Observateur is the perfect example. This iconic magazine of the French social democrats perfectly fits the picture of a nursing home where residents don’t do much while waiting for the unavoidable end. A thick layer of journalists there are keen to praise the weekly: “You come on a tuesday morning to write your column and by the following thursday, you’re gone. I don’t complain.” Two insiders told me that one of the events that finally pushed the aging owner of the “Nouvel Obs” to sell was the nixing of a timid management proposal: cutting one week of vacation (out of twelve) to save money. Also true, a good third of the staff actually does working hard to produce the magazine week after week. But a digital transformation — comparable, for instance, to what the Atlantic Media Group undertook is the US — is a dream completely out of reach.

From an investor standpoint, buying the Nouvel Observateur means spending from the outset €15m to €20m, just to realign the company with decent working practices. French laws and collective bargaining do not help. In the case of Le Nouvel Observateur, the change in ownership will trigger a “clause of transfer” that will entitle every journalist to leave the company with at least one month of salary per year of employment (raised to 120% of the monthly wage beyond 15 years). For the upper layer of the newsroom that will see their working habits incompatible with a probable productivity realignment, this could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reward their long and tranquil tenure… at a cost of several million euros for the new owner. The same goes for mandatory buyouts, the customary way to push out people no longer needed. (What is Le Monde buying you might ask? Basically a 500,000 subscribers base, a better bargaining position on the advertising market, add a dose of vanity…)

Again, from a investor perspective, being forced to spend €15m-20m before allocating the first cent to a transformative investment is a severe deterrent. This mechanism also threatens daily newspapers such as Liberation (another icon of the French left wing, where I spent 12 years of my career). Isolated, stuck with a single product, dealing with a 35% decline in its paid circulation last year, a weak advertising base and a discredited management (in a recent internal vote, 90% of staff mistrust the bosses), a negative P&L despite €12m in State subsidies, this company faces a certain death unless it radically transforms itself. Its only way to survive might be to forgo the costly daily print edition, move to a well-crafted weekly distributed in selected urban areas, and extend it to realtime digital coverage on web, mobile and tablet. But such a move would mean yet another downsizing, along with heavy costs. No one is willing to be dragged into such “social Vietnam”, as one of my interlocutors puts it.

Those who advise potential buyers are quick to point out that, if the goal is to take a position in the digital world, their money would better be spent in building a pure player from the ground up. With €20 or 40 million, you can definitely build something powerful in the journalistic field.

The highly publicized startup culture — some would say “ideology” — with its unparalleled mixture of agility and skyrocketing valuations contributes to the demise of legacy medias. Consider the table below. It shows the gap between the valuation of each customer of social networks and legacy media:

305 valuations

For what it’s worth, this comparison illustrates the tremendous loss in value for legacy media. Several actually make (slim) profits while digital companies such as Pinterest or Snapchat don’t even have a revenue model. But as unfair as it sounds, investors — venture capital firms, Wall Street, high tech giants — are betting on two factors: the scalability of current user bases (with factors 10x or 20x being the norm) and also the ability of digital players to swiftly adjust themselves to quickly changing environments. Two qualities unfortunately not associated with legacy media.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

 

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