10 years of swimming against the digital currents leaves Lee Enterprises, Inc. at half its former self

Back in 2007, Lee Enterprises, Inc. – owner of the Quad City Times and now the Dispatch/Argus – reported daily circulation of just over 1.6 million at its 51 newspapers. Today, that number is down to 788,000 at 47 newspapers, according to the company's latest annual report filed Friday (12/8).

Ten years ago, the Davenport-based company had operating revenue of $1.13 billion and 8,300 full-time jobs. In its just released annual report, the company reported $567 million in operating revenues and a workforce of 3,626 full-time positions.

Despite the steady fall-off in print circulation and revenues, the media company has managed to pay down its sizable debt (taken out in 2005 to acquire the St. Louis Post-Dispatch) from $1.5 billion in 2007 to $548 million at the end of September.

Lee's stock prices, reflecting the decline in assets, revenues and employees, has declined from nearly $49 a share in March 2004 to $2.33 per share as of Tuesday (12/12).

Like nearly all newspapers, Lee has been attempting to build its online, digital revenues to offset the print circulation and advertising declines.

Lee reported digital advertising rose 8 percent in its fiscal year ended September 24 to $92 million. Digital advertising now comprises 28 percent of all advertising and marketing revenues, according to the company.

Adding in the company's successful TownNews.com (which sells content management system software to run news web sites around the country) and other digital businesses and total digital revenues reached $106 million for 2017, according to the company.

"We believe TownNews.com represents a powerful opportunity for us to drive additional digital revenue," the company stated in its annual report. "In 2017, digital services revenue, which is primarily TownNews.com, totaled more than $14 million. Since 2011, the compounded annual growth rate of TownNews.com revenue has been 9 percent."

Print advertising, meanwhile, continues to decline, falling 16 percent in the past fiscal year.

For the 12-months ended September 24, Lee reported earnings of $28.6 million (51 cents per share), down 20.5 percent compared with $36 million (66 cents per share) in fiscal 2016.

For the fourth quarter, earnings totaled $3.5 million (6 cents per share), compared with $700,000 (1 cent per share) for the same quarter in 2016.

CLICK HERE to download the Lee Enterprises, Inc. 10-K Annual Report for the fiscal year ended Sept. 24, 2017.

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