We made some news last week. We reported that our parent, The Dolan Company, planned to file a prepackaged Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition, which it in fact did March 24. Other media picked up the story, and we’ve gotten a fair number of calls and emails of inquiry and concern. Here’s some context, and also why we’re not worried and why you shouldn’t be either.
Put simply, we see the bankruptcy as a positive. Almost overnight it removes an anchor of debt from around the corporate balance sheet and allows our sound, profitable, cash-flowing businesses to continue to grow and prosper.
The problematic debt the company amassed came from ventures unrelated to core publishing operations. Much of it had to do with a separate division that provided back-office file administration services to foreclosure law firms, none of them in Missouri, by the way. During the several-year frenzy of home foreclosures, that business thrived. After the housing bubble burst, and the default industry underwent upheaval, so did that Dolan division.
Dolan divested of nearly all those operations, but they still left a heavy imprint on the company ledger. Now, through the bankruptcy process, some $170 million in debt gets reduced to an eminently more manageable $50 million.
As part of the reorganization, we have new owners. Investment firm Bayside Capital, which had acquired the lion’s share of Dolan Company bonds, is converting its debt to equity. As a consequence, firm founder and CEO James P. Dolan and COO Scott Pollei have stepped down.
My heart goes out to them. I have known them both since well before I joined the company almost nine years ago. Jim recruited me to Missouri. One of the strongest selling points was the opportunity to come work for him, and from Day One it has been a privilege and a delight. All we’ve achieved here and elsewhere in the company — the devotion to customers and quality, the commitment to the highest standards of journalism and integrity, the leadership and business principles, how we serve our constituencies and our communities — all of that traces directly to Jim’s vision and his character.
The important point is, those values don’t walk out the door with Jim and Scott. They endure. Nor does a bankruptcy dampen our ambitions for this enterprise. To the contrary, the expedited nature of a prepackaged reorganization lets us get on with our business.
And business is good. Through the first quarter of 2014, Missouri Lawyers Media advertising sales have exceeded the prior year by 20 percent. Mind you, that comes after 2013 sales outperformed 2012. Few media companies in the country can claim similar achievements. Our events business, including the upcoming Women’s Justice Awards, continues to grow in attendance, influence and success. Our core product, our journalism, remains strong, as we hope readers see every day and week, and as a fresh collection of Associated Press awards recently attested.
Our journalism is also about to get stronger. Most of you have seen the improvements to our digital services. Missouri Lawyers Weekly now has its own dedicated site, with richer content, smarter navigation and design, and responsive design that allows pages to adapt to virtually any screen size. Simultaneously we launched an industry-leading site for our Missouri public notice information and a new site for our county newspapers.
In the newsroom, we’re overhauling how we do things. That has nothing to do with a bankruptcy and everything to do with digital-age muscle building. To improve our storytelling, and story planning and presentation, we’ve combined our editorial and design operations under the managing editor’s position. We’re able to do that because of the considerable talents of Lora Wegman, promoted to the post at the start of March. Lora brings to her new responsibilities experience in both design, the focus of her University of Missouri master’s degree in journalism, and in newsroom management, having joined us in September from the Columbia Daily Tribune, where she was city editor.
All major news organizations today are working toward integrating digital operations with print. The prevailing catch phrase is “digital first newsrooms,” the idea that content should flow efficiently to online users without deferring to the more laborious process of getting pages on a press. The more accurate description of our approach is “platform neutral,” managing content in ways that play to the respective strengths of iPhones and ink. We achieved a big breakthrough in this area by promoting Sydney Miller to news editor. Formerly our digital editor, she’s now our copy traffic cop, standing at the intersection of all workflows and content distribution channels. Sydney joined the staff in May, straight from her graduation from the Mizzou J-school’s convergence program.
On the subject of playing to strengths, we’ve promoted staff reporter Scott Lauck to associate editor. Scott will serve as an assignment editor on reporter projects and oversee our Verdicts & Settlements service while continuing his award-winning state appellate and government coverage. The move recognizes Scott’s rare gift as a journalist and leverages it across the newsroom.
As for me, you may have noticed I’ve added the editor’s title to president and publisher. Journalism is what lured me from law practice in the first place. I came up through the ranks on the news side. Even after my career took me over to the business side, I never fully left the newsroom or lost the journalism bug. Editor and publisher is the title I held at my previous newspaper, and I’m excited to don that duality again.
All this realignment lets us shift resources from news management to newsgathering, from content administration to content creation. By redeploying, we’re creating a stronger, more nimble news operation.
We’re expanding coverage topically and geographically. The business of law beat, for example, with its focus on law firm news and legal economics, will expand to include more coverage of ethics and discipline, areas of high reader interest and high journalistic impact.
Our courts reporters on the eastern and western sides of the state will cover a wider array of state and federal courthouses, beyond the downtown St. Louis and Kansas City circuit courts. We’ll put more emphasis on trends, the litigation craft, the judiciary, how the legal system functions and how it doesn’t, while continuing to report on important individual cases.
To put these plans into practice, we’ve been recruiting — and hiring. In April veteran state reporter Jessica Machetta joins the team from broadcast and digital service MissouriNet. Doing some shuttling between St. Louis and mid-Missouri, she’ll add firepower to our legislative and state government coverage while also developing a wide-ranging legal affairs beat. Soon we hope to add another reporter to the staff.
This is all by way of saying we’ve been busy. We’ve had a lot going on, and it hasn’t had much to do with getting ready for bankruptcy. Mainly, we’ve been getting ready to take our news organization to the next level.
S. Richard Gard
Publisher and Editor