Tribune Co., parent of the Los Angeles Times, reported that earnings have fallen steeply over the past two years as print advertising continues to erode in a troubled newspaper market.
The company on Monday reported net income of $422.5 million for the 12 months ended Dec. 31. That’s down 5.7% from $447.9 million in 2011 and off 20.7% from $533 million in 2010.
The newspaper unit’s ad revenue skidded almost $200 million, or 14.5%, over the last two years. It declined $84 million, or 7%, last year, after falling 8% in 2011. In addition to The Times, the company owns the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun and five other daily newspapers.
Advertising fell across a range of print categories, including a 6% drop to $614 million in retail advertising, which includes department stores and home-improvements warehouses. National advertising, which includes cellphone companies, movie ads and financial categories, fell 10% to $254 million after tumbling 16% the previous year.
Digital advertising, which the industry had once hoped would offset the decline in printed ads, rose $10 million, or 5%, last year.
Tribune was required to release its financial performance under the terms of its emergence from bankruptcy protection last year.
There were a couple of bright spots for the newspaper unit.
Overall operating revenue was off less than 1% last year thanks to a 9% gain in circulation income and a 12% pickup in other forms of revenue. That helped the publishing unit record an $89-million operating profit last year, down only 1% after tumbling 42% the prior year.
At Tribune’s broadcasting unit, operating revenue was up 3.6% to $1.14 billion. The unit’s operating profit rose 10% to $366 million.
The results come as the company is mulling a sale of The Times and its seven other daily newspapers to focus on its more promising television operations.
Tribune hired investment bankers in February to analyze a possible sale. But the process has moved slowly.
The company has yet to take the basic step of opening its financial books to potential bidders.
That process appears to be delayed by uncertainty over how a sale could affect the way advertising revenue is divided between the papers and several Tribune-owned Internet sites, such as careerbuilder.com and cars.com. Any reduction in the ad revenue going to the newspapers could hurt their earnings and lower their value.
Tribune has tried to tamp down expectations, and even suggested that the company may hold on to the papers if it doesn’t get an adequate offer.
In a companywide email last month, Tribune Chief Executive Peter Liguori said speculation about a deal is “premature” and that “and no decision to sell our publishing assets is imminent.”
Many experts, however, believe Tribune ultimately will part with the papers.
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