Newspaper Bankruptcy Watch: Lee Enterprises

It’s ironic that Lee Enterprises, a company that prides itself on the transparency and openness of its journalism, is engaging in a bit of financial trickery to fool investors.

Lee is a sinking ship. Its anchor has snagged on $2 billion in debt while the company is being pounded by a fierce gale.

To keep investors from fleeing in the lifeboats, Lee Enterprises announced today that it’s resorting to the financial equivalent of rearranging the deck chairs: a reverse stock split.

This is an utterly meaningless gesture designed to make it seem that the company’s worthless shares actually have more value. If you’re stupid enough to buy Lee stock after that, you deserve what you get.

Investors weren’t fooled. Shares of Lee fell nearly 14 percent today to close at 31 cents.

A reverse stock split means that instead of 100 shares of Lee worth $31 at today’s closing price, you will have 5, 10, 20, or 50 shares of Lee worth $31. It’s like exchanging 310 dimes for 124 quarters.

Nothing changes. It does nothing to address Lee’s huge problems in either the short-term or the long-term. That’s why the list of companies that went into bankruptcy after a reverse stock split is long.

But Lee is desperate to rejoin the New York Stock Exchange, which doesn’t want to trade piddly-ass penny stocks. If only the company cared as much about journalism as it does about its stock price.

Addendum: The company did receive a temporary reprieve from certain “covenants” on its Pulitzer debt, which means that Lee isn’t in default, yet. However, if I’m reading the company’s release correctly, Lee still owes a $306m balloon payment due in April. (background here).

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