Don't Want to Get Passed Up

What do you do if your core business is imploding not because you are bad at what you do, but because the world has suddenly changed. Ask the Tribune Company, parent of the Chicago Tribune newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Cubs, and part owner of WGN television network and the Food Network cable channel.

Tribune Company’s newspapers are losing circulation and advertising weekly to Craigslist, ESPN and themselves on the web. America’s newspapers have a mass case of Parkinson’s for which there is no current cure. Younger people want their news on the Internet. It’s that simple. The big city newspaper as we know it is dying.

Big city papers like the Trib still make a lot of money, but the future is shrinkage. The stock market hates for that. It worships growth and despises shrinkage. The Tribune Board is now almost forced to sell the papers to a private equity firm, which will milk them to pay debt and fees. The tough decision is whether to keep the other media aspects together as a package or sell off everything and count the money.

The Tribune Company is in a fix like a lot of guys in the screw machine business today. The multi spindle business, high volume, medium accuracy is being dismembered by movement of work to China and India. The trend ebbs and flows, but the long term shift of high volume commercial manufacturing is clearly toward low cost labor markets. As these low cost suppliers hone their skills they will take low volume, high value added work too.

Using the Tribune Company logic, this is the time to sell out of the screw machine business to a smaller private equity investor who will do the eminently logical thing – squeeze it and pay down debt, then flip it to somebody else.

I think that the big city newspaper and the big manufacturing company analogy holds up fairly well. The niche publication, which is not time sensitive, can succeed in the marketplace. And the niche machining company with great expertise and swift response capability will be able to prosper in the American market. Medical, aerospace, military, specialty auto and hundreds of other specialty machining markets hold great promise for well positioned firms. The web will foster numerous export opportunities.

The Tribune is doing the right thing to dish off the papers. They are too big to fix quickly. Huge manufacturing concerns are also correct to shut down fat old factories, but little niche players should have an open field in both publishing and manufacturing in the next several years.

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