DAVENPORT -- Lee Enterprises Inc., the parent company of The Courier, reported improved fourth quarter earnings and gains in digital revenue as the publisher remains focused on driving cash flow, reducing debt and pursuing strategic acquisitions.

On Wednesday, the Davenport-based Lee announced earnings of $3.5 million, or 6 cents per share, for the quarter ended Sept. 24. That compared to earnings of $0.7 million, or 1 cent per share, for the same quarter a year ago. For the fiscal year, earnings totaled $28.6 million, or 50 cents per share, compared to $36.0 million, or 64 cents per share, in the prior year.

"Adjusted (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization) for the fourth quarter totaled $36.7 million and was down 1.1 percent from the prior year. This is an improving trend and the best quarterly Adjusted EBITDA performance, as compared to the prior year quarter, in two years," Lee CEO Kevin Mowbray said in a news release. "We also maintained our industry-leading margins in both the fourth quarter and fiscal 2017. For the fiscal year, Adjusted EBITDA was $144.6 million, a decline of 6.0 percent from the prior year."

In the release, Mowbray noted these financial highlights:

• Digital retail advertising, which represented 61 percent of total digital advertising in the quarter, grew 7.9 percent in the quarter and 9.4 percent for the fiscal year — driven by advertising from local retailers.

• Digital advertising revenue increased 6.1 percent to $23.1 million and represented 29.3 percent of total advertising for the quarter.

• Total digital revenue, including digital advertising and digital services, increased 3.8 percent to $26.7 million for the quarter. Total digital revenue increased 6.7 percent to $106.0 million in 2017. Monthly page views of Lee mobile, tablet, desktop and app sites averaged 244.2 million, an increase of 11.6 percent over the prior year quarter.

"For the fiscal year, digital advertising revenue increased 8.0 percent and accounted for 27.8 percent of total advertising revenue, making it our best annual performance in the category since 2014," Mowbray said in the release.

During a conference call Wednesday with analysts, Mowbray said Lee continues "to face headwinds in print advertising, especially from big box retailers and classifieds."

Total advertising and marketing services revenue decreased 10.2 percent in the quarter, and 10.6 percent for the fiscal year.

Operating revenue fell 5.4 percent in the quarter to $140.2 million. For the fiscal year, operating revenue decreased 7.7 percent to $566.9 million.

He said total revenue was down 6.8 percent in the fourth quarter, and decreased 7.1 percent for the fiscal year.

Lee executives also provided an update on its $7.2 million acquisition in June of the Moline Dispatch-Rock Island Argus newspapers from the Small Newspapers Group. Mowbray said the transition of the newspaper into Lee is expected to be completed at the end of March quarter.

Executive Chairman Mary Junck told analysts Lee continues to evaluate strategic acquisitions particularly in solid, mid-size markets. "We will continue to routinely survey the landscape for properties that can be acquired at attractive multiples and be accretive to free cash flow," she said.

Lee also is acquiring and developing new technologies for its TownNews.com, which provides digital services, including web hosting and content management to Lee's properties and 1,600 other media outlets.

"The company continues to aggressively reduce debt," said Treasurer and Chief Financial Officer Ron Mayo.

Debt was reduced by $20.1 million in the quarter and by $68.8 million for the fiscal year. As of Sept. 24, Lee's principal debt amount was $548.4 million.

Mayo said cash costs decreased 8.8 percent in the quarter and 7.7 percent for the fiscal year, exceeding the company's prior guidance.

Mayo said of the $16 million in real estate that Lee has on the market, $10 million is under contract and expected to close in the first half of 2018.

Cutting expenses continues to remain a focus. Operating expenses decreased by 9.7 percent in the quarter and 6.8 percent for the fiscal year, Mayo said.

Compensation decreased 9.6 percent in the quarter and 8.4 percent for the fiscal year as a result of a reduction in full-time staffing levels and lower self-insured medical costs.

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