A.H. Belo execs silent on Projo’s lagging ad sales, new website

A.H. Belo executives gave no explanation Tuesday for why The Providence Journal’s sales trailed those of its two sister papers in 2011 and didn’t say if they’re satisfied with the response to its new website.

In a short conference call with investors, A.H. Belo CEO Robert Decherd and his management team outlined no plans for the Providence paper and didn’t indicate when the company expects to start charging Web and iPad readers for its new electronic edition created by Olive Software. The company’s Dallas Morning News flagship started charging last March.

Only one investor asked A.H. Belo executives questions during Tuesday’s call. Chief Financial Officer Alison Engel promised “a robust update” about its “subscriber content strategy” on its next investor call, which will likely happen in April or May. An executive said in November The Journal will launch its paywall this year.

The Journal suffered the largest year-over-year drop in advertising revenue during the fourth quarter among A.H. Belo’s three papers, the company said. Ad sales surpassed expectations at the Morning News and Press-Enterprise of Riverside, Calif., during the three months ended Dec. 31, Decherd said.

A.H. Belo posted a net loss of $10.9 million in 2011, a significant improvement over its net loss of $124.2 million in 2010. Total revenue fell 5.3% to $461.5 million compared with the prior year. The company swung to a fourth-quarter profit of $2.8 million despite a 2.6% slide in revenue.

The Journal’s Web traffic has fallen by about a third since it launched a new, scaled-down website in mid-October that has been greeted with a mostly lukewarm response from readers.

The new ProvidenceJournal.com averaged 291,041 U.S. visitors a week between Oct. 22 and Jan. 21, down 33% from the old Projo.com’s 435,745 weekly average between Aug. 6 and Oct. 15, figures from Experian Hitwise show. Nine of the paper’s employees took buyouts in December, according to the Providence Newspaper Guild.

Decherd singled out continued growth in printing and distribution contracts as a financial bright spot for The Journal. A.H. Belo took in $39 million from contracts in 2011, accounting for 8.5% of its total revenue.

A.H. Belo stock fell 8.3% to $5.22 a share at 3:07 p.m. Tuesday in New York Stock Exchange trading. The stock plunged 45% in 2011, third-most in the newspaper industry, according to media analyst Alan Mutter. The company may make an extra contribution of $10 million to its underfunded pension plan this year, Decherd said.

More Providence Journal and A.H. Belo coverage:

(photo: A.H. Belo)

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