Fri | Apr 19, 2019

National Enquirer tabloid faces losses, legal trouble

Published:Friday | August 31, 2018 | 12:00 AM
This combination photo shows various covers of the National Enquirer. (AP)
In this January 31, 2014 photo, David Pecker, Chairman and CEO of American Media, addresses those attending the Shape & Men's Fitness Super Bowl Party in New York. (AP)

The National Enquirer has long explained its support for Donald Trump as a business decision based on the president's popularity among its readers.

But private financial documents and circulation figures obtained by The Associated Press show that the tabloid's business was declining even as it published stories attacking Trump's political foes and, prosecutors claim, helped suppress stories about his alleged sexual affairs.

The Enquirer's privately held parent company, American Media Inc (AMI), lost US$72 million for the year ending in March, the records obtained by the AP show. And despite AMI Chairman David Pecker's claims that the Enquirer's heavy focus on Trump sells magazines, the documents show that the Enquirer's average weekly circulation fell by 18 per cent to 265,000 in its 2018 fiscal year from the same period the year before the greatest percentage loss of any AMI-owned publication. The slide follows the Enquirer's 15 per cent circulation loss for the previous 12 months, a span that included the presidential election.

More broadly, the documents obtained by the AP show that American Media isn't making enough money to cover the interest accruing on its US$882 million in long-term debt and that the company expects "continued declines in circulation and advertising revenues" in the current year.

That leaves AMI reliant on debt to keep its operations afloat and finance a string of recent acquisitions that are transforming the tabloid news industry.

That creditor backstopping AMI is a New Jersey investment fund called Chatham Asset Management. Its top executive dined with Pecker and Trump at the White House last year, and the fund has both a history of Republican political donations and ties to the administration of former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, which awarded it hundreds of millions of dollars in state retirement funds to manage.

AMI's current debts stem from the declining fortunes of the magazine industry and a series of acquisitions. Chatham has kept this number from ballooning further by converting some of the debt it is owed into shares in the company.

Campaign finance allegations

The publisher's precarious financials and reliance on Chatham are a backdrop to the publisher's growing entanglement in a federal investigation of allegations of hush-money payments and violations of campaign finance laws.

Trump's longtime personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty last week to criminal violations of campaign laws, accepting prosecutors' claim that he, Trump and the National Enquirer were involved in buying the silence of an adult-film actress and a former Playboy model who claim to have had affairs with Trump. Pecker and his top editorial deputy, Dylan Howard, have both received immunity in exchange for their cooperation. Along with Cohen, they are among the latest longtime Trump loyalists to be swept up in the federal investigations engulfing the president and his inner circle.

Neither AMI nor company officials have been charged in the case.

AMI did not provide an on-the-record response to detailed questions from the AP sent to Howard, Pecker and its outside spokesman. But a confidential financial document obtained by the AP argues that investors should focus on its current cash flows and not its profitability.

Over the last two years, it has generated a combined US$12-million cash flow from operations even as it has posted US$160 million in overall losses.

AMI's brush with a campaign finance probe comes amid its recently announced efforts to refinance as much as US$450 million in debt. Despite the company's recent purchases of US Weekly and rival gossip publisher Bauer Media, revenue from AMI's existing publications continues to drop, the financial report obtained by the AP shows.

Pecker has long maintained an aura of absolute control over the Enquirer and its sister publications, boasting of his willingness to spend AMI's money to benefit Trump.

But Pecker owns only a small fraction of AMI, around eight per cent, according to the company. More than 80 per cent of AMI - as well as hundreds of millions of dollars of its debt - belongs to Chatham Asset Management, with billionaire investor Leon Cooperman owning an additional seven per cent.

Chatham declined to address questions about the Enquirer's relationship with Trump or the future of its investment in AMI. But the firm released a statement saying Chatham "has no involvement in the editorial process or the day-to-day business decisions of the company".

Cooperman told the AP that AMI has lined up a prominent investment bank to help with its upcoming effort to raise capital and that he expects a prospective deal to be launched after Labor Day. He said he expects AMI to convert more of its debt to shares in the company as part of that refinancing.

- AP