Friday, February 1, 2013

Why is Warren Buffett buying up Southern newspapers?



Dang if I know why Warren Buffett is buying up Southern newspapers, but I suspect it's for the same reason he buys other stuff: he thinks he can make money.  Despite cackling and heckling from newspaper detractors for at least the last decade, newspapers have not vanished from the face of the earth.  Circulation has certainly declined precipitously and newspaper advertising revenue has plummeted and employment had dropped, yet newspapers are still publishing, still paying the help, still making money, though hardly as much as they made in the heyday of the industry.

So it really didn't come as a surprise when he bought up the newspaper I worked for from the time I was a kid on a bike throwing an afternoon route, a high school sports stringer, a college dorm route carrier, and later a copy editor, reporter, Washington correspondent, Raleigh Bureau Chief and editorial writer and columnist over nearly three decades.  Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (BH Media) bought The News & Record of Greensboro yesterday. It once was a fine newspaper that you could find in just about any sizable town in the state.  Now it's a small almost tabloid-sized paper, but the people who work there still aim to do the kinds of things it did when it featured such luminaries as Jonathan Yardley and Ed Yoder and Jim Jenkins and Larry Keech and Wilt Browning and Sherry Johnson and Greta Tilley and Jerry Bledsoe and Ned Cline: break stories, provide good writing, publish compelling commentary and tell people what they need to know.

Buffett's company has been buying up newspapers in this region for at least the past year. It owns larger papers such as the Richmond Times-Dispatch, medium-size papers such as the Winston-Salem Journal, smaller N.C. papers such as those in Hickory, Morganton, Statesville, Marion, and Florence, S.C., and he has bought up smaller community papers such as Floyd, Va, Bristol, Va. and Reidsville, N.C.  We are, it seems to me, becoming surrounded by the new media king of this region.

A longtime friend and former newspaper executive recalled the other day that this kind of thing once would have been against the law, back in the days when the U.S. Justice Department worried about such things as monopolies and trusts and one company dominating a single market.  Once upon a time, Landmark Communications, which owned the Greensboro newspapers as well as the local CBS affiliate, sold the TV station in Greensboro to avoid questions, or worse, about anti-trust issues.  You just don't hear those kinds of questions being raised much these days, perhaps because a lot of people think newspapers and even TV stations are dying and it won't be long before they're gone.

I don't think they're dying so much as they are changing in dramatic ways.  They'll look a lot different in years to come, as newspapers maneuver to attract more paying online readers and as they reshape general news products to attract subscribers still interested in print editions.  I'm also guessing that in small towns, print will remain a viable product for a long time -- as least in communities where newspapers still cover the news vigorously and give people reasons to buy it.  From what I've read, that's one reason Buffett is buying: He still thinks newspapers are important to their communities.

While I've never met Warren Buffett, I did spend a lot of time with his distant cousin Jimmy's music during our sailing days.  It occurs to me that I've spent considerable money over time with the Buffetts -- with CDs about pirates and shrimp and schooners and sloops, and with several of Buffett's current newspapers, currently including the weekly Floyd Press, where there's always some kind of a story that comes as a surprise about the colorful people and their aspirations for a small town with ambitious ideas.  Given that most TV stations and the bigger papers pretty much ignore the place except for the obligatory quarterly pieces about the arts, I expect the Press is going to do all right -- at least in comparison to its citified cousins down yonder in the flatlands.



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