Often when I get into a serious conversation with someone about my job, I get that leaning-forward, over-the-top-of-the-glasses look and the question, “So, how are newspapers really doing?”
Like many newspaper people, I am an optimist. My tendency is to say they’re just fine, then sell them an ad or a subscription.
But even my optimism has limits. Much of the news about “the newspaper industry” has not been good the last few years. Big, leveraged buyouts were followed by falling stock prices, cutbacks, consolidations and closings.
Then came the news that Berkshire Hathaway has purchased 63 newspapers, including two in Texas.
Warren Buffett, Berkshire’s founder and CEO, is considered the smartest investor on the planet. When he says “Buy!” it raises eyebrows. His company has owned the Buffalo News since 1977 and last December bought his hometown paper, the Omaha World-Herald. In May, Berkshire agreed to buy 63 newspapers from Media General. In June they bought two Texas dailies, the Bryan/College Station Eagle and the Waco Tribune.
So what does Warren Buffett know?
In a May 23 letter to his editors and publishers, he admitted he has “loved newspapers all of my life.” His father edited his college paper and his mother’s dad owned a newspaper. Buffett himself delivered papers as a youth. He reads five newspapers a day.
“I believe newspapers that intensively cover their communities will have a good future,” he wrote. “It’s your job to make your paper indispensable to anyone who cares about what is going on in your city or town.”
He urged newspapers to maintain their news coverage and serve their readers.
“A newspaper that reduces its coverage of the news important to its community is certain to reduce its readership as well,” he said. He said they should thoroughly cover all aspects of community life – especially local sports.
Buffett admitted that print newspapers have lost their dominance in areas like national news and sports, stock quotations, employment opportunities and other areas where up-to-the-second immediacy reigns supreme.
“Our job is to reign supreme in matters of local importance,” he said. “We will favor towns and cities with a strong sense of community. If a citizenry cares little about its community, it will eventually care little about its newspaper.”
At 83, Warren Buffett is representative of many of our readers, who developed newspaper habits early in life. Many young people are not developing those habits and may not be newspaper readers as they grow older, raise families and run businesses.
But if they join a community, maybe they will. Our industry’s challenge is not just the survival of newspapers, but the survival of communities. They are inseparable.
Readers need to recognize, as Buffett does, that “news” is more than unrest in Egypt, tension in Taiwan or the latest Kardashian divorce. People need to know about their schools, local government, why that power line is going there, why their water bills are so high. They need to know who went to state, why taxes went up (or down – I told you I was an optimist) and what the Main Street program is doing.
Newspaper ownership that is willing to spend money to serve readers has become rare over the last few years. A company like Berkshire Hathaway can reverse that trend and give newspapers a chance to prove they can be relevant in the 21st century.
It remains to be seen if serving readers will have the desired effect on the bottom line.
Warren and I think it will.