It really wasn’t all that long ago that newspaper conglomerates such as Gannett were basking in the glory of 50% profit margins while companies such as Exxon Mobile were mired in much more conservative figures that in the last 10 years never exceeded 12%. Now newspapers are bleeding red ink by the barrel.
Why then is money baron Warren Buffet spending money in an industry that just three years ago he claimed had the proven potential for repeated and unending losses?
According to Bloomberg News, Buffett recently struck a deal to purchase 63 newspapers, and may buy more, as he gives voice to the idea that there’s money to be made if only the newspaper industry would stop giving away its content. The problem with that premise, as I’ve witnessed over the years while working in print media, is that there’s long been a drive to charge for content that freely makes it to the web. The problem with Buffett’s notion is that people have come to expect information via the World Wide Web to be free. Changing that mindset isn’t going to be easy. Maybe Steve Jobs could have done it, but he’s no longer with us.
I don’t know about you, but given the quality of newspaper content these days, what passes for local news — and even national and international information — is already overpriced. But that doesn’t seem to be where Buffett is going, at least as I read it.
Buried within the Bloomberg report is this little nugget: “Berkshire will … favor towns and cities with a strong sense of community.”
What does he mean by “sense of community?” Could he mean those newspapers that operate under the premise that serving the customer (namely the reader) is job one? And, practically speaking, what does this look like for newspapers as they move ahead through the electronic age?
Still, Buffett seems to believe that newspapers should be “indispensable” to their communities. Could that mean the printed word on newsprint will still be the model as we move through the electronic age where smart phones and tablets continue to gain prominence?
The indispensability factor is going to be a mighty tall mountain to climb since many of the communities I’ve lived in over the past decade seem to have a more “leave it” than “need it” attitude when it comes to their local newspapers. It’s common to hear jokes about the local newspaper and the ever-shrinking amount of time it takes to peruse it for valued information. It’s certainly the case in my local community.
I still recall the small, community newspaper I once worked for in rural northeastern California and the “must-have” attitude of the public when it hit the streets every Thursday morning, rain, snow or shine. It’s my understanding that people still wait outside the offices of the Modoc Record in Alturas, Calif. for the print edition of the newspaper that has published only local news for well over a century. Yet in keeping with the times, subscriptions can now be purchased online and the newspaper read by computer, tablet or smart phone.
Bloomberg quotes Buffett from a Berkshire company memo: “Our future depends on remaining the primary source of information in certain subjects of great importance to our readers. Technological change has caused us to lose primacy in various key areas, including national news, national sports, stock quotations and employment opportunities. So be it. Our job is to reign supreme in matters of local importance.”
Buffett nails it! Maybe the newspaper model of the future isn’t the “be-all” attitude of the smaller dailies that once thought they could compete with the larger, regional dailies. Maybe size does matter, but rather than larger, the new model is for smaller geographies of reporting. Maybe what the newspaper industry needs is an entirely different focus — one that dials in the premise that local news is king and begins to hire reporters and editors who are willing to role up their sleeves and wade into their communities in search of the issues, rather than the failed practice of parking themselves in front of a computer monitor and telephone as junior editors dole out press releases and complain about the quality of information reporters are regurgitating from their assigned news releases.
- Buffett in newspaper investment (bbc.co.uk)
- Why Warren Buffett Really Likes Newspapers (businessweek.com)
- Buffett set to buy more newspapers (news.smh.com.au)
- Buffett eyeing more papers, and not going to publish free content (worldmediatrend.wordpress.com)
- Buffett to buy newspapers – but says online readers must pay (theweek.co.uk)
- Did Warren Buffett Just Save the Newspaper Industry? (dailyfinance.com)