When Warren Buffet Believed in Newspapers—and Then Didn’t

From an About Editing and Writing  post in 2013:

Warren Buffett is back to believing in newspapers. Last year he spent $344 million buying 28 newspapers, including his hometown paper, the Omaha World-Herald, and he’s about to buy the Tulsa World.

He did quickly shoot down any suggestions that he buy the Chicago Tribune, LA Times, or any other big metropolitan paper, maybe because he knows too much about what’s happening at the Washington Post. He started buying Post Company stock in 1973 and his gains total about $700 million, but he’s now getting off the board of the Post Company to focus on his Berkshire Hathaway investments.

So what’s his newspaper strategy? It’s pretty clearly smaller, or at least medium-sized, is better, and don’t be too close to a metro area. Be big enough to put out a good paper and make a profit, small enough that there’s a real sense of community. Above all, don’t spend a lot reporting local news and then give it away on the Internet.

What’s local news? For many years Ken DeCell’s family owned the Deer Creek Pilot, a weekly in Rolling Fork, Mississippi. Ken, a longtime senior editor at The Washingtonian, grew up listening to a Linotype machine and a newspaper press. I asked him why people read and loved the Deer Creek Pilot.

“Deaths, marriages, high-school sports, and other truly local coverage is what made (and makes) most local residents read the Deer Creek Pilot. Most people weren’t just looking for news—they already knew who was engaged or who had won the ball games. They were looking for validation, confirmation, official recognition of what had happened. Many just wanted to see their—or their sons’, daughters’, mothers’, neighbors’, friends’, rivals’, whatever—names and/or pictures in print.”

Warren Buffett seems to think that delivering local news is what newspapers do best, and that includes doing  what the Deer Creek Pilot has been doing all these years.

It’s what the Washington Post doesn’t do. The Post tries to cover local sports but how do you cover more than 150 high schools in a few pages a week? It has a little weekly feature on two marriages to show they know there is such a thing as local news, but they put more effort into gossip about Hollywood marriages and divorces. They run obits so haphazardly that you wonder why they bother—some days none, some days a few national or world figures, some days 20 local obits.

My guess is that before Warren Buffett buys a newspaper, he wants to know if it can deliver real local news—the Deer Creek Pilot kind of news, not the Washington Post kind of news. I’ll bet he wants to know how many high schools are in its circulation area.

From an About Editing and Writing post in 2016:

That relative anonymity in a big city is why Warren Buffett decided it makes sense to own newspapers in smaller cities–Buffalo, Omaha, Tulsa, Richmond—but not in cities like Washington, Chicago, or LA. Here’s his thinking about newspapers:

“Newspapers continue to reign supreme, however, in the delivery of local news. If you want to know what’s going on in your town—whether the news is about the mayor or taxes or high school football—there is no substitute for a local newspaper that is doing its job. A reader’s eyes may glaze over after they take in a couple of paragraphs about Canadian tariffs or political developments in Pakistan; a story about the reader himself or his neighbors will be read to the end. Wherever there is a pervasive sense of community, a paper that serves the special informational needs of that community will remain indispensable to a significant portion of its residents.”

From a Los Angeles Times story in 2019:

Warren Buffett often has expressed a visceral love for newspapers, especially regional publications, and has acquired not a few over the years. When he bought his hometown Omaha World-Herald in 2011, saving it from a financial crisis, he said he was “delighted…that the editorial independence that Nebraskans and Iowans have come to expect from the World-Herald will continue.”

Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway holding company owns 31 dailies in 10 states, as well as 47 weeklies. But he’s skeptical about their traditional business model: In April, at the time of Berkshire’s annual meeting, he told Yahoo News that newspapers are “toast,”except perhaps for the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.

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