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UPDATED: Lee Enterprises Faces Debt Crisis -- in Overall Peril?

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

UPDATED: Lee Enterprises Faces Debt Crisis -- in Overall Peril?

Article excerpt

Lee Enterprises Inc., publisher of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and other newspapers, said in a regulatory filing that it will have trouble paying its debt over the next two years because of severe reductions in revenue.

The company also disclosed that its outside auditor is questioning Lee's ability to remain a "going concern" if the company is unable to refinance some loans.

Industry analysts said Friday, however, that the auditor's assessment was largely a technicality, one likely to be mirrored as other newspaper companies file annual reports over the next few months that reflect a disappointing 2008.

Like the rest of the industry, Lee has seen advertising drop sharply as the recession compounded declines that began with the migration of readers and advertisers to the Internet. Lee depends on advertising for about three-quarters of its revenue.

Lee's daily papers include the Post-Dispatch, the Lincoln Journal Star in Nebraska, the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, Wis., and the Quad-City Times in Davenport, Iowa.

Lee said in a regulatory filing Wednesday that it generated sufficient cash flow in 2008 to reduce its debt by $102 million. But it will need to tap a revolving credit agreement to pay off $143 million in bank notes in 2009 and more than $166 million in notes due in 2010.

In addition, Lee has $306 million in debt it assumed when it bought the Post-Dispatch and the rest of the Pulitzer newspaper group in 2005. Pulitzer had taken on the debt in 2000, and those notes come due in April 2009.

Lee said negotiations were continuing with lenders to extend or refinance the Pulitzer notes, but the prospects were uncertain given "the abnormal condition of the domestic credit markets and the overall recessionary operating environment."

Officials with Prudential Financial Inc., the lead holder of the Pulitzer notes, had no comment Friday.

Separately, Lee missed certain lender-imposed financial targets, known as covenants, because it took accounting charges to reduce the value of its goodwill and other intangible assets by nearly $1.1 billion in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 28.

Goodwill reflects the implied value of assets such as a company's brand, and it declines as share prices and revenue projections tumble. …

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