Is There a Traffic Bubble, Or Does The New York Times Have an Inefficient Capital Structure?

As I hope my family can attest, I made a great point over dinner a couple of weeks ago about how the New York Times is clearly undervalued vis-a-vis various internet stocks. The NYT’s not an “internet company” but it does run one of the world’s most popular websites. Then I forgot all about it. But via Ezra Klein, I have a chance to revisit the point via Frédéric Filloux contention that we’re experiencing a web traffic bubble:

About 35% of the HuffPo’s users come form Google. They land on cleverly optimized content: stories borrowed from other (and consenting) medias that mostly generate blogging and comments. This is the machine that drove 28m unique visitors in January, which makes the HuffPo close to the New York Times/Herald Tribune audience of 30m UV. With one key difference: each viewer of the NYT websites yields an ARPU of $11, ten times more than the Arianna thing. Based on the HuffPo’s valuation, the NYT Digital would be worth billions. That’s a consolation.

You can think of some rational reasons for Huffington Post to get a premium over the NYT, related to HuffPo’s more favorable labor cost structure. You can also assume they’re getting a certain AOL desperation premium.

But is the basic thesis that the NYT should be worth a ton of money really so absurd? It’s an iconic global brand whose main competition as an iconic serious English-language global media brand is owned by the UK government. The New York Times Company currently has a market capitalization of about $1.5 billion and if their P/E ratio were at the S&P 500 average, it would in fact be worth “billions” right now. So why isn’t it? If I’m so smart why don’t the markets agree? Well, it’s a family controlled company with a two-tier stock structure. There’s got to be some reason most firms aren’t organized this way, and presumably the reason is that you pay a penalty in terms of the price of your equity. That’s a price the Sulzberger family has historically been willing to pay in order to preserve the family’s control over the iconic brand in question—they’ve viewed staying involved and maintaining their vision of the paper’s mission as important enough to weigh against some more narrowly commercial considerations. That seems like a sensible view to me, but it’s also sensible for investors to penalize them for it.

Recall that when Carlos Slim was given the opportunity to make an unorthodox investment in the NYT he wound up making a bunch of money.