Gannett Buys Belo For $1.5 Billion, Aiming For Advertising 'SuperGroup'

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Gannett BeloMost of Gannett's acquisitions in recent years have been about making the company more digital, but its $1.5 billion purchase of local broadcast operator Belo is a nod to the media business's main advertising driver: television.

But as McLean, VA-based Gannett goes about creating an advertising and content "SuperGroup," as the company stated in its release, Dallas' Belo can also provide the basis for a wider digital sales network, something Gannett had hoped to achieve with its former newspaper paper partners in the defunct quadrantONE joint venture.

Gannett and Belo haven't said what will happen with Belo's seven-month-old digital marketing unit, ScreenShot Digital – calls and messages weren't returned – but that piece of the business could fit with the similarly focused Gannett Local and alongside the company's other digital properties. Those properties include rich media provider PointRoll, jobs site CareerBuilder, e-circulars provider ShopLocal, daily discount outfit Deal Chicken, mobile rewards program Mobestream Media (Key Ring) and Facebook ad platform Blinq Media.

The addition of Belo effectively doubles Gannett's TV holdings. That's important for the company's digital efforts in two clear ways.

One, Gannett's print newspapers and their website extensions are still the victim of something that has plagued most newspaper/digital chains, namely the fact that marketers are more likely to spread their existing print budget to digital rather than increasing their spending (aka "upselling"). For years, digital has been about the only bright spot in Gannett's quarterly earnings. In Q1, total digital revenues from all business units rose nearly 30% to $350.3 million.

Yet as advertisers are pitched to spend on a company's newspaper and digital version, they often divide the same budget between print, PC-based web and mobile, rather than increase spending across the board.

Local broadcast websites also face similar upselling issues from advertisers. But because video is rising so quickly, and established brands in a local market – such as Belo's – are more apt to capture those increases in ad spending, it's much less of a problem. Furthermore, cross-platform video sales are also commanding national marketers' attention. As a result, the more coverage Gannett has for its video outlets, the more attractive it is to national and regional advertisers like quick service restaurants and auto dealerships.

The second key part of the deal is that Gannett finally gets to shake off its label as a "newspaper company." Flagship USA Today and its 80 US Community Newspapers have been impacted by the industry's steady declines in advertising and circulation, though Gannett has managed to see small gains in that revenue segment in recent quarters. Belo – not to be confused with publicly traded sibling AH Belo, publisher of the Dallas Morning News and six other metros – is strictly broadcast.

The one tricky thing is integration, something that sunk the quadrantONE deal this past winter, when Gannett and its partners – The New York Times, Hearst and Tribune – couldn't agree on the amount of continued investment, particularly as the three had begun to develop their individual programmatic strategies. (Gannett ended up hiring quadrantONE's CEO Mario Diez as CEO of PointRoll, a place he had worked at a decade ago.)

So far, Belo's ScreenShot has followed the path of other quasi-ad agencies at Gannett and other media companies. The vision is to support brands' wider interactive and social advertising, even when not featured directly on its title properties.

"We are operating completely independently of those other Belo properties," Eric Schaefer, ScreenShot’s GM, told AdExchanger in December. "ScreenShot is being positioned as a longer-term play that reflects the wider media business beyond TV and print. It’s about broadening the entire business model of how we're approaching customers and driving revenue."

As Gannett's "TV SuperGroup" falls into place, the company has come up with ways of finding pieces that fit together naturally on the digital side. Take the social marketing platform Blinq Media, which recently found a way to partner with its Gannett sibling ShopLocal. The streamlining of national, local and the various forms of digital advertising under its increasingly large umbrella suggest that Gannett already has its next steps in mind.

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