John Rogers of Ariel Funds Comments on Gannett Co
Last but not least, the transformation of one of our most controversial names, Gannett Co., Inc. (GCI), has even surprised some of its most ardent critics. Despite wildly negative views of its admittedly decelerating newspaper publishing business, Gannett represented a diversified media company with a solid broadcasting division, a growing digital business and ownership in the popular CareerBuilder.com jobsite. During the worst of times, Gannett was highly profitable and throwing off tons of cash. In fact, its free cash flow has always been positive and this cash generation enabled the company to pay down debt and also refinance at much lower rates. More specifically, the company's debt has steadily trended down from $4.3 billion during the 2009 market low to $1.7 billion today. While cleaning up its balance sheet, Gannett increased its dividend, which now yields a rich 5.4%. Recently, the company also announced plans to buy back $300 million worth of stock in the next two years, which represents 9% of its shares outstanding. Even investment great Warren Buffett has come around to the possibilities at Gannett. Given our admiration for his investing prowess, this is a reassuring reversal. In 2009 when he was asked about the future of newspapers, he commented, "We would not buy them at any price." Today, Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (BRK.B) not only owns Gannett shares but has also recently been on somewhat of a newspaper buying binge.