The Friedman effect and the Globe's bottom line

As I noted yesterday, the relevation in this week's New Yorker that NYT columnist Tom Friedman has an unlimited travel budget has been seized upon by Globe reporter Brian Mooney, who's passionately opposed to the Times Co.'s request for major concessions from the Globe's unions.

In using the New Yorker piece to continue making his case, though, Mooney seems to have erred on a significant detail. In the email to colleagues I quoted yesterday, Mooney wrote:

The New York Times Co. wants you to slit your own throats and take money out of your pockets so Tom Friedman (and others in New York) can travel in style and at great expense -- and then brag about it. The Times (not the Globe) lost $74.5 million last quarter and will lose a bundle in this quarter [emphasis added].

But as a DQM reader notes, the Times didn't lose a total of $74.5 million in the first quarter of 2009. The Times Company--which includes the Globe--lost that amount.  (The Times Co.'s operating loss, meanwhile, was $61.6 million.)

"My memo was intended for internal consumption--I didn't intend it to be on web sites all over world," Mooney told me this afternoon. "But I knew it was possible, and I should've been more careful. I should have said, 'The Times Company (not just the Globe) lost 74.5 million in the first quarter, and is going to lose a bundle in the next.

"But just do the math," Mooney added. "They've claimed we're on course to lose $85 million this year, for entire year. So what percentage are we of that [$74.5 million] loss? Are we a third? 40 percent? I don't know, but it's pretty clear that other parts of the company, including the International Herald Tribune and the Times itself, also lost significant amounts of money that quarter, and will continue to."

As Mooney suggests, the great unanswered question is what portion of the Times Co.'s losses can be laid specifically at the Globe's feet. But the Times Co. doesn't publicly disclose those numbers. Consequently, all we can do is take the bits of Globe-related financial info that have already been reported and try to piece them together into some sort of semi-coherent whole.

We know the paper reportedly lost $50 million last year, and is (as Mooney says) reportedly on pace to lose $85 million this year. We also know that the Times Co.'s Q1 report cited $25 million in severance costs, "primarily at the New England Media Group," which is dominated by the Globe. 

Unfortunately, there are a whole bunch of Rumsfeldian "known unkowns." Such as: does the $85 million-loss forecast for 2009 include the aforementioned severance costs, or not? (If it does, the Globe's prospects for solvency suddenly look a bit less dim.) And what portion, if any, of the Globe's projected 2009 expenses includes payment on the Times Co.'s debt service--which is onerous enough that the company canceled its stock dividend earlier this year?

Even given all this fiscal uncertainty, though, one thing seems clear: whatever the Globe and the Times actually lost last year, Tom Friedman's New Yorker comments came at a pretty bad time.

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