NEW YORK — The New York Times Co. said Wednesday that fourth-quarter earnings plunged 48 percent and online sales fell for the first time as the recession depressed spending by advertisers. The results still beat analyst estimates, and its shares rose nearly 7 percent.
The Times also announced it has retained investment firm Goldman Sachs to help explore a sale of its 17.8 percent stake in New England Sports Ventures, which owns the Boston Red Sox baseball team, Fenway Park, a portion of a cable sports network and other properties.
The Times company, which publishes the Times, The Boston Globe, the International Herald Tribune and 16 other daily newspapers, earned $27.6 million, or 19 cents a share, in the October-December period, compared with $53 million, or 37 cents per share, in the same quarter of 2007.
Excluding various one-time charges, earnings totaled 36 cents a share, above the 27 cents per share that analysts polled by Thomson Reuters had expected.
Shares in the company rose 38 cents, or 6.8 percent, to close at $5.98.
Revenue totaled $772.1 million in the fourth quarter, slightly above expectations of $767.5 million but 11 percent below the $865.8 million in the year-ago period.
Like other newspaper companies, the Times has suffered from plunging ad revenue as the recession exacerbates weaknesses from the migration of readers to the Internet. Last week, Lee Enterprises Inc., publisher of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and other newspapers, said its fiscal first-quarter earnings tumbled 69 percent. Media General Inc. and Gannett Co. report their results later this week.
"The disruptions of the global economy are affecting all businesses and industries, especially companies, such as ours, that generate a significant portion of their revenues from advertising," said Janet L. Robinson, the company's chief executive.
Robinson said the company has responded by cutting its dividend by 74 percent and agreeing to a $250 million cash infusion from Mexican financier Carlos Slim, which comes at a hefty 14 percent interest rate.
In a setback for the Times' digital ambitions, the company reported that Internet revenue decreased 2.9 percent to $92.5 million and online ad sales fell 3.5 percent to $81.9 million on weak sales in graphical display ads, where the Times newspaper site has typically shined given its brand and audience.
Although online revenue represents only 12 percent of total revenue, an increase from 11 percent at the same point a year earlier, that is where the Times and other newspapers are pinning their hopes for the future.
Online advertising has been slowing across the industry after years of rapid growth. The latest numbers show that even the Internet isn't immune to the weak economy, and advertisers might be spending their smaller budgets on the tried and true.
"As people hunker down, they are probably less inclined to try new things," said Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for the journalism think tank Poynter Institute.
In print, the company saw increases from financial services trying to reassure their customers and from advocacy groups tapping into the political campaigns and worries about the economy and the environment. That was offset by declines from studios releasing fewer films and publishers delaying new book releases.
The current quarter so far doesn't look much brighter.
Robinson said print ad revenue was dropping faster in January compared with December as retailers pull back following a disappointing fourth quarter. She said January's online decline was stable compared with December, when digital ad revenue fell 12.7 percent, the second consecutive month of reductions.
Overall ad revenue in the news media group, which includes newspaper Web sites but not About.com, fell 18 percent during the fourth quarter, the steepest quarterly drop all year, though the decline in December wasn't as steep as the previous two months.
The Times company did see a 3.7 percent gain in circulation revenue to $234 million, largely resulting from higher prices at the Times, the Globe and other papers.
Debt stood at $1.1 billion at year's end.
The Times has been trying to raise $225 million from its new, 52-story midtown Manhattan headquarters, either by selling the building and leasing it back or borrowing against it. Times officials have refused to disclose the full value of the building, and the city assessor's office has been unable to provide it.
Wednesday's announcement on the hiring of Goldman Sachs confirms the company's interest in selling the stake in the Red Sox and related properties. Barclays Capital credit analyst Hale Holden has valued the Times stake in those properties at $140 million to $166 million.
During the quarter, the Times took an accounting charge of $19.2 million, or 7 cents a share, to reflect the declining value of the International Herald Tribune as revenue prospects worsen. The company also charged $24.1 million, or 10 cents a share, for severance costs related to the closure of a retail and newsstand distribution subsidiary.
The Times also said that its pension obligation is underfunded by about $625 million because of market declines. The company said it might have to fund the deficiency over seven years, although no contributions will likely be required in 2009.
For the full year, the Times reported a net loss of $57.8 million, or 40 cents a share, compared with net income of $208.7 million, or $1.45 per share, in 2007. Sales fell 7.7 percent to $2.95 billion.
AP Business Writer Andrew Vanacore in New York contributed to this story.