I drive an 8-year-old Subaru with average miles and a couple of dents. As of today, it’s worth about 14,000 shares of Lee Enterprises. When I left the company in 1997, the same sort of vehicle would have been worth about 120 shares. Maybe Lee should have been selling used cars instead of newspapers.
I worked for a Lee newspaper — The Missoulian — for 14 years. The highlight was the annual Christmas party, distinguished by a lavish buffet and easily counterfeitable drink tickets. As with all Lee papers, there was a stock-purchase plan. You bought stock through a payroll deduction at 15 percent less than the current value. Most of us then turned around and sold our paltry 15 shares and squandered the cash on a vacation or a VCR. The stock was always going up, but it always felt like we’d gotten away with something.
Turns out, we didn’t. Most of us were also putting as much as we could into the company’s 401(k) plan. We all know how that turned out. The vacations and the VCRs are now but a memory, and so is the dream of a comfortable retirement.
The New York Stock Exchange is warning Lee that it may be delisted. Not hard to see why: It’s a penny stock now and nothing on the horizon suggests any reason for optimism –except maybe some wild pump-and-dump scheme, but even Nigerian e-mail fraudsters have more credibility at this point. Somebody tells you he’s got a sure-fire way for newspapers to turn things around, it’s probably wise not to disclose any personal information.
I get misty. I loved those Missoulian Christmas parties. But this is the last time I bemoan the fate of newspapers. They all spent the better part of a decade paring the product, maintaining big profits, and trying to figure out how to cash in on the Internet. Hey, two out of three ain’t bad. Now it’s time to move on. Somebody offers me 14,000 shares of Lee for my Subaru, the answer’s no.