Had some audio problems in the beginning but tuned in for the heart of the New York Times Company (NYSE: NYT) presentation at the Bear Stearns Media Conference led by CEO Janet Robinson, who was, point by point, offering the most pointed corporate rebuttal yet to the activist investors trying to gain four seats on the NYTCo board. The publishing company has faced challenges before, most recently from a fund manager who finally walked away, but hedge fund Harbinger's approach of challenging for four spots at once with partner Firebrand, and accumulating more than 19 percent of the company's common shares, has caused a much bigger stir in a far shorter timeand more immediate pressure. I will fill in the gaps as soon as possible but here are some highlights after the jump:
-- Digital traffic: The activists say the Times can do better with digital. Robinson focused on what the company has already accomplished and its current growth pattern. NYTimes.com had 20.5 million uniques in January, up nearly 45 percent over the previous year. The online properties combined had 51.6 million uniques for the same time, up 21 percent. Robinson urged the investors and analysts, "When you think of valuation, think of web presence, " adding that NYTCo ranks ahead of NBC, MTV and Facebook. When the subject came up again during Q&A, Robinson added a couple of data points, noting that NYTimes.com added more new users than went to WSJ.com in total in January, and that one in eight U.S. internet users visited NYTimes.com in January. Robinson: "We're making sure we're scaling very quickly. ... We think it will drive rates .. we already have one of the highest rate structures. People pay for premium content, even on the web." Monday, when the NYTimes.com broke a "startling story"Eliot Spitzer's connection to a prostitution ringweb traffic at 2 p.m. scaled 60 percent. Robinson: "When indeed you are able to monetize growth like this, it's good for shareholder value." (I was among those who ran into problems loading the front page and other pages during that peak.)
-- Premium content: Speaking of premium ... Robinson raised the issue of TimesSelect during Q&A, noting the decision to shut the premium tier service down in September when, "as we did our research we realized we would be able to scale our audience much quicker. ... We do not rule out the option to bring back an opportunity for paid content, but right now we feel the advertising revenue we are bringing in scales nicely with the audience."
-- About.com: Since it was acquired, About.com has had an annual compound growth rate of 40 percent with an operating profit of 55 percent. Yes, this is the same NYTCO unit now operating sans CEO since Scott Meyer left in a surprise move just last week.
-- Partnerships: Robinson: "In this era, no media company can afford to be an island." She ticked off the partnerships NYTCo has formed recently: CNBC, Monster.com, the regional group and the Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO) Newspaper Consortium, ad network Quadrant One for premium advertisers nationally. No details though.
-- Boston Red Sox, etc: Robinson defended the investment in the Boston Red Sox and NESN, listed among the assets the activists want NYTCo to divest, as being relevant both for journalism and advertising.
Disclosure: NYTCo unit About.com is the venue sponsor of our upcoming EconHealth conference.
By Staci D. Kramer