Lee Enterprises maintains papers’ strength, touts online

DAVENPORT, Iowa — Lee Enterprises — corporate owner of The Garden Island — is poised for strength ahead as its newspapers maintain solid circulation while at the same time expanding their online components to extend reach, the company’s chairman and chief executive officer told shareholders Wednesday.

“We at Lee are not buying the negative,” Mary Junck said of the “pot shots” that some pundits have taken at the newspaper industry. “It is not what we are seeing from our industry.”

In her address at the annual meeting, Junck said Lee’s newspapers and publications are leaders throughout the communities they service.

“Our brands are household names, and what we do matters,” she told the more than 60 shareholders attending the annual meeting at the Figge Art Museum in downtown Davenport — located across the street from Lee’s corporate headquarters.

Across Lee, she said the newspapers are located in healthy, diverse markets and are the media leaders in their markets. Among the reasons for her optimism, she said, is Lee’s ability to maintain a solid circulation base, its big and growing market reach and its emphasis on revenue growth.

Lee has proven it is creative, flexible and fast moving, she said, pointing to Lee’s involvement in the rapid rollout of Yahoo Hot Jobs as well as a new program, Lee Online University, which is providing multimedia training to employees. By next month, the effort will have trained 350 employees.

Carl Schmidt, Lee vice president, chief financial officer and treasurer, told the audience that “2006 was not an ideal year” with a weaker advertising market. But the company still saw ad revenues climb 40 percent, revenues rise 38 percent and reduced its net debt.

He added that 2007 is off to a strong start with first quarter earnings exceeding what analysts had predicted. In January, Lee reported that diluted earnings per common share were 58 cents from continuing operations.

That compared to 47 cents a year ago when early retirement and transition costs related to the Pulitzer Inc. acquisition reduced earnings 12 cents.

Although its newspapers remain Lee’s foundation, Junck said online operations give the company more tools to reach readers — particularly younger readers — as well as another avenue for its advertisers. “We’ll keep focused on newspapers … while doing it online,” she said, adding this is not an either/or strategy.

In business during the meeting, three directors were re-elected to new three-year terms.

They are: Mary Junck, Lee’s chairman, president and chief executive officer, a director since 1999; Andrew Newman, private investor, director since 1991; and Gordon Prichett, a partner of Cairnwood Cooperative and professor of mathematics, statistics and information systems at Babson College, a director since 1998.

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