Daily Archives: May 25, 2012

Bad news, good news about newspapers

I learned yesterday that one of America’s great cities will no longer have a daily newspaper in the unkindest way, courtesy of my favorite celebrity Twitter follower, Adam Baldwin:

Adam Baldwin Adam Baldwin

Buggy-Whipped?! | RT @carr2n “Times-Picayune facing deep layoffs, may cut back from daily publication.” – http://nyti.ms/Jsib87

He jests at scars that never felt a wound. How would ol’ Jayne Cobb feel if the financial underpinnings of movies and TV suddenly collapsed? (Hey, don’t say it could never happen. Have you heard about Autohop? Remember, newspapers didn’t start dying because people didn’t want news; it was the ads drying up.)

That newspapers are having to cut back isn’t new (especially not to me), although nothing quite like this has happened before in a major city, so it’s a milestone (and the same company is doing the same with its papers in several other cities, including Birmingham). But my sadness is for the city as well. I lived in New Orleans almost as long as anywhere else growing up — I went to school there for two years (7th and 8th grades) instead of the usual one — and news like this makes it feel like the city itself is dying, with a vital spark fading:

The latest to go to three days a week: The storied New Orleans Times-Picayune, one of America’s oldest papers, which announced Thursday that it plans to limit its print schedule — beginning this fall — to Wednesday, Friday and Sunday editions. It will maintain 24/7 online reporting via its site, Nola.com.

This is a tactical trend for New York-based Advance Publications, which owns the Times-Picayune, as it pushes toward a limited print-digital model. Advance said Thursday that in addition to the Times-Picayune, it will also cut back the print frequency of its three papers in Birmingham, Mobile and Huntsville, Ala., to three days….

First Katrina, now this.

But enough bad news. We have some startlingly good news from closer to home: Warren Buffett is investing in newspapers. Including in South Carolina.

You may have seen that news last week. I was sufficiently surprised that I didn’t know what to make of it, and haven’t commented yet. But I have a new news peg: Buffett has written a letter to his editors and publishers, communicating his thinking in making this move. It’s a bracingly confident message:

Until recently, Berkshire has owned only one daily newspaper, The Buffalo News, purchased in 1977. In a month or so, we will own 26 dailies.

I’ve loved newspapers all of my life — and always will. My dad, when attending the University of Nebraska, was editor of The Daily Nebraskan. (I have copies of the papers he edited in 1924.) He met my mother when she applied for a job as a reporter at the paper. Her father owned a small paper in West Point, Nebraska and my mother worked at various jobs at the paper in her teens, even mastering the operation of a linotype machine. From as early as I can remember, my two sisters and I devoured the contents of the World-Herald that my father brought home every night.

In Washington, DC, I delivered about 500,000 papers over a four-year period for the Post, Times-Herald and Evening Star. While in college at Lincoln, I worked fifteen hours a week in country circulation for the Lincoln Journal (earning all of 75? an hour). Today, I read five newspapers daily. Call me an addict.

Berkshire buys for keeps. Our only exception to permanent ownership is when a business faces unending losses, a remote prospect for virtually all of our dailies. So let me express a few thoughts about what lies ahead as we join forces.

Though the economics of the business have drastically changed since our purchase of The Buffalo News, I believe newspapers that intensively cover their communities will have a good future. It’s your job to make your paper indispensable to anyone who cares about what is going on in your city or town.

That will mean both maintaining your news hole — a newspaper that reduces its coverage of the news important to its community is certain to reduce its readership as well and thoroughly covering all aspects of area life, particularly local sports. No one has ever stopped reading when half-way through a story that was about them or their neighbors…

So… if we are to take Mr. Buffett at his word, this isn’t some bid to rack up losses for tax reasons, or any other convoluted strategy. He actually believes this is a good investment. And he’s not known for being wrong about such things.

Back when I was first laid off, the executive editor position at the Florence paper was open. But I didn’t apply for the job — a combination of wanting to stay where my grandchildren are, and a reluctance to jump back into a dying industry, having done more than my share of laying-off and cutting back in the last few years.

But had the opening occurred under these circumstances — with new ownership, and that owner being Warren Buffett, and he bullish on newspapers — I might have looked at it differently.