Media companies dumping their debt

DEBT-free is the new black among Australian media companies that are waking up to the fact that a strong balance sheet is needed in an environment where no one can see an end to the advertising doldrums.

DEBT-free is the new black among Australian media companies that are waking up to the fact that a strong balance sheet is needed in an environment where no one can see an end to the advertising doldrums.

Rupert Murdoch started the trend in June when he announced that the publishing side of the News Corp spin-off (which will retain the name) will be debt-free to give the challenged business a leg-up.

He will also sneak in News Corp's half-share of pay TV provider Foxtel to bolster the business, but that's another story.

Fairfax Media, owner of The Age, is taking another route - selling the remainder of its prized digital business, New Zealand's dominant online auction group Trade Me - to pay down its debt to negligible levels.

Fairfax had net debt of $815 million as of June 30 - excluding Trade Me's debt - and the expected $600 million sale will add to the $80 million raised from the sale of a US business last month.

In a tough environment, Fairfax will have the balance sheet to support its restructure and look at further acquisitions in the digital space that fit its needs. A prized bauble it may have been but the truth is that Trade Me is not an integral part of Fairfax's media business - as many potential predators are no doubt aware - and its current price is irresistible. The company trades somewhere above 20 times its forecast earnings for this year, Fairfax is trading around 8.5, according to Bloomberg data.

If selling an asset such as Trade Me in the current environment sounds like a tough decision, spare a thought for Ten.

The embattled broadcaster has been forced to undertake its second capital raising in six months - with its stock trading at record lows - in order to wipe out its debt worries. What remains are concerns about its operational performance.

Questions are also being raised about the need for APN News & Media to follow suit after a massive profit downgrade last week raised questions about its ability to remain within its debt covenants.

Nine Entertainment may not be getting the clean balance sheet it was hoping for when a capital restructure was announced in October but as a private company protected from an unforgiving sharemarket its need probably isn't as great as the listed stocks.

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