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MEG Showdown: CEO Morton: ‘What We Are Is A Content Company’; Harbinger: ‘The Board Has Failed’

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The New York Times Company (NYSE: NYT) has settled with Harbinger but the Media General (NYSE: MEG) beatdown goes on … MEG CEO Marshall Morton says Media General is not a newspaper company, a broadcast company, or even a podcast company (he really said that; this is not an April Fools’ joke): “What we are is a content company… a local content company.” Morton spoke today at a special meeting held by Mario Gabelli, designed to bring the company face to face with activist investor Harbinger.

While there, he reiterated that you can’t talk about the weakness at MEG without addressing the horrible Tampa economy. Newspaper publishers keep going back to the Florida well to explain their weakness, and Morton made this a point. But, the Tampa market is also illustrative of the company’s strategy: “…every week, we reach nearly 80 percent of that Tampa market with our information. No competitor or peer even comes close to that.” Meanwhile, he said, the company is applying the lessons its learned in Tampa across more markets. Throughout his speech, Morton repeatedly referred to this “audience aggregation” model (via the web, newspapers and broadcast stations) as key to its strategy of delivering value to advertisers.

As for Harbinger, Morton wondered what the firm actually plans to do: “Now, I’ll be interested to hear how (Harbinger VP Joseph) Cleverdon sees the future and what new and different ways Harbinger proposes to ‘unlock value’ at Media General. We’ve asked, but he hasn’t told us yet… what is it that Harbinger brings to the table that’s so important that we should unseat three valuable, knowledgeable and committed Directors and substitute three Harbinger nominees that frankly, in our view, cannot hold a candle to the current Board.” Full speech

Cleverdon also presented at the event, hitting the company over its sliding stock price and poor financial metrics — the first half of his slides are just dedicated to showing what everyone knows, that MEG is not going well. He goes over Harbinger’s past statement, that the company overpaid for NBC, while adding the fact that it’s done a bad job of exploiting broadcast duopolies. Essentially, the presentation goes right at the “audience aggregation” argument, saying it’s basically a myth. As for its investments in Blockdot and Dealtaker, which Media General just trumpeted yesterday, Cleverdon argued that the company should have bought startups that tied more directly into the core business, rather than starting out on something new.

As for its proposed solutions, Harbinger wants to see a refresh of the board (of course), a smart acquisition strategy, more aggressive cost cuts, and renewed investment in making the broadcast business work. It also thinks the company should keep its options open with respect to strategic alternatives, like spinoffs, JVs and mergers. Presentation.