Monday, February 4, 2013

Look who's investing in newspapers

The 33 years I spent in the newspaper business were the most fun I ever had in a job, and the most challenging times and hardest work I ever did. Although I've been out of that career for five years come this fall, I still have a warm spot and an abiding interest in the news business.

So it was heartening to discover that some other people (besides me) think there's a future for print journalism in a future filled with billions of smart phones, whiz-bang tablet apps and 72-inch televisions. None other than Warren Buffett, the "Oracle of Omaha," thinks good newspapers are a pretty good investment. Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway company has been spending millions of dollars buying up newspapers around the country, including most recently, the Greensboro News and Record.

Buffett is not one to throw money away on sentimentality or nostalgia, although his hometown Omaha World Herald is among the papers BH has bought. So you have to assume that Buffett thinks newspapers will make money and are good investments. Admittedly, he's buying newspapers at fire-sale prices, once-proud papers being sold at a fraction of their value of just a few years ago. And the newspapers in most cases are puny compared to what they had been in their heyday. That fat Sunday classifieds section that made the Sunday paper a pain in the back to lift, is now just a half-dozen or so pages. The classifieds have all fled to eBay or Craigslist or some other online listing. And display advertising, the ads with pictures and bold type carefully arranged for biggest impact, has dwindled away, too. Online advertisements can offer targeted advertising that matches the consumer's interest and that is billed only if the consumer selects the ad by clicking on its link. There's no way print advertising can match that. Even the coupon inserts that spill out of the Sunday paper are endangered by online or mobile options.

So why is an investor as smart at Warren Buffett buying up newspapers? Maybe it's because the good newspapers that are left after all the layoffs, trimming, cutbacks, buyouts and reductions have survived the deluge and now can be expected to retain their new niche in the information society. Although I use computers all day (including the home desktop I'm typing on now) and have a smart phone and a tablet, I still trudge to the end of the driveway every morning to pick up that print edition and savor it over coffee and a light breakfast. I can read the very same newspaper on an iPad, and I use that app whenever I'm away from home and continue to be amazed that it's an exact replica of the print edition, but I still like to hold the print edition in my hand, share the sections with my wife and toss it into the recycling bin when I'm done.

I'm hopeful, now that Warren Buffett is on board, that print newspapers will always be around because it would be a sad world — and a poorer country — without them. All those Internet sites, including Facebook, that more and more young consumers rely on for information get nearly all their news from, you guessed it, newspapers. Only newspapers, with their seemingly limitless capacity to dictate advertising prices and practices, could afford to hire the reporters and maintain the capital and foreign bureaus necessary to thorough news coverage. Television might have taken over that yoke, but TV is first and foremost an entertainment medium. A company that makes a fortune off of airing fat people on diets and handsome men wooing sexy women (or vice versa) is not going to put the necessary resources into covering a defense spending bill or a potential biohazard. The remaining newspapers are trying to maintain their obligation to inform their readers even as they pursue new means of providing that information.

Newspapers, from the New York Times to the lowliest community weekly, carry the burden of keeping the public informed. Maybe Buffett realizes that democracy depends upon an informed electorate, and, that being the case, an investment in newspapers is worth its cost.

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