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.” –

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,

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.

45 thoughts on “Bad news, good news about newspapers

  1. `Kathryn Braun

    I never understood the concept of racking up losses for tax reasons. I mean a loss reduces your taxable income, but that means it also reduces your actual income.Same with deductions–they aren’t credits–you still are out the amount, less the deduction, you spent. I guess that’s why I’ll never be a Master of the Universe.

  2. Greg

    Random thoughts: I remember buying a Times-Picayune for a nickel on a trip there with the USC band in the 70s.
    Do you really consider Birmingham a major city?
    I think newspapers did it to themselves, and continue to do it to themsleves on the their websites. I have to pay more monthly than I would for a subscription to The State (if they still delivered to my town) to access the bulk of their Carolina sports coverage on their website.
    ‘Splain it to me, Lucy.

  3. Burl Burlingame

    One of the real problems newspapers have faced is corporate ownership by people who did not understand the product. Some papers, including mine, were not killed because they were unprofitable, but because they weren’t profitable ENOUGH.


    The papers that are in the most trouble are big-city dailies and niche shoppers. Smaller, community papers seem to be holding on.

  4. Kathryn Fenner

    I think Warren Buffett has the sense of noblesse oblige that may provide a model for saving newspapers….

  5. JoanneH

    Makes me sad. I read newspapers online from all over the country: LA, Seattle, Des Moines, Chicago, New York, Washington, Spokane…New Orleans, one of my favorite cities.

    Very sad.

  6. `Kathryn Braun

    “The papers that are in the most trouble are big-city dailies and niche shoppers. Smaller, community papers seem to be holding on.”

    Is this because big cities don’t have as much perceived need for newspapers? Smaller communities perceive the need for local news, and that it won’t be covered well otherwise, while perhaps big cities’ residents either don’t care or figure there are plenty of sources.

  7. Dixieviking

    Burl is striking the nail head-on. Putting out a newspaper is furnishing us with a Service, rather than a Product.

    Service industries generally provide less of a profit margin that is found in the manufacturing business.

    In spite of that, we see corporate leaders demanding that a service-industry return a 20% plus profit margin.

    Not in the cards. Not nowadays.

  8. Ralph Hightower

    I think it’s bad when the content of the paper is less than the advertising circulars. This ain’t even Black Friday which everybody expects to have lots of advertising circulars. This was Sunday, May 27, 2012.

  9. Brad

    Kathryn, it has nothing to do with readers or how they perceive the need for local news. That’s not what saves or kills a newspaper.

    It’s about the revenue, and how much of it you need to do the job.

    I can’t give you the exact formula, but generally it tends to work out that you can sell enough advertising to support enough staff to publish once a week. That’s a skeleton staff, but if they work at it all week, they can provide a good quantity of content — for that one edition. You don’t have to come up with all that much revenue to support a staff that size and that much newsprint.

    What newspapers across the country are having trouble doing is raising enough ad revenue to pay a large-enough staff to cover adequately everything in a large metropolitan area and publish (on paper) every day.

    Readers have been important to a newspaper’s fiscal health in only one way historically: The larger your circulation, the higher your ad rates. But that doesn’t do much good when advertisers aren’t willing to pay those rates. Add to that the fact that advertisers are less interested in a mass audience, and want to target their messages, and you have a market that is less interested in newspapers, radio and TV at ANY price.

    So you then have the phenomenon we’ve seen over the last quarter-century of newspapers intentionally jettisoning readership that costs the paper more to serve than those additional readers (indirectly) bring in.

    As an example, The State achieved its highest point of circulation not long after I arrived at the paper in the late 80s. Over the next few years, the paper began the long, slow process of scaling back readership — starting (in the early 90s, I want to say, but I may be misremembering) with subscribers who lived in distant rural areas. The process continued until only people in the Midlands and part of the Pee Dee could get the paper — because those were the only readers the paper didn’t lose money on.

    That’s where things stood when I left. I don’t know how widespread circulation is now.

    Anyway, it’s a story that you can see played out all over the country. There’s nothing unique about The State in that regard. Just part of a pattern in the industry.

  10. Brad

    Oh, and before someone protests that newspapers should care more about the READERS… well, you’re talking to the wrong guy.

    I was the guy who cared only about serving the readers. That’s all I was supposed to think about, and nobody cared more than I did. I was the guy explaining what The State newspaper was, and its mission, and how devastating to that mission it would be to cut off all those people across the state who valued and wanted the service I provided.

    I was Horatio at the bridge, standing for quality and service to the people of South Carolina. But Rome decided it didn’t need Horatio any more.

    My previous comment helps to explain why.

  11. Burl Burlingame

    Dunno if this link will work, but David Simpn’s blunt in the current CJR:


  12. Burl Burlingame

    Well no way to post a HTML link from a “reader” version, so I posted the link on Facebook

  13. `Kathryn Braun

    But can’t you have more paper if you have a lower ROI?

    I wish the employees could figure out how to buy out the paper–that’s more the model for a service industry, anyway–the owner(s) work there, too.

  14. Steven Davis II

    Employees have to have the funds to buy out a business. Are there enough employees left at The State to afford the millions the owners will want? Would it be a sound investment to put money into a newspaper right now?

  15. Silence

    When I worked at Scripps, I was told that newspapers don’t own printing presses – printing presses own newspapers. A 2 sided, full sheet, 4 color, offset press is an expensive piece of equipment…

  16. Brad

    Yep, that’s why the Web is such a revolution. Anyone with a laptop — or access to the public library, for that matter — can be a publisher.

    It used to be that the cost of that press was a huge barrier. I recall that my professor in a media law class once observed that freedom of the press belongs to him who owns the press.

    That’s the great irony in the advent of the Web. What it should have done is remove a huge expense for newspapers — at least 40 percent of costs. But here’s the problem: Newspapers can’t stop publishing the paper version entirely, because that’s still where the lion’s share of revenues come from. Nobody has succeeded in getting enough online revenue to replace more than a fraction of what is being lost as print advertising goes away.

    If, a few years ago, The State could have gone completely online, I’d still have a good job there. But it couldn’t, because of this nasty twist in market realities: There is still a consumer market for the print product (although smaller than it was). So, if the paper stopped publishing on dead-trees, a low-cost operator would come in and serve those readers who still want their news that way. And that low-cost operator would be much more lucrative than the online former metro daily, because you can make more money from even a few print ads than you can from a lot of online ads.

    As reduced as that revenue stream is, newspapers can’t afford to leave that money on the table. So they are trapped.

    The thing about this NOLA move is that it will now have fewer opportunities to sell print ads — so it’s kind of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. I guess they’ve run the numbers and decided this will work for them — for awhile at least.

  17. Doug Ross

    The other thing that traditional dead tree papers cannot compete with is the news cycle.

    And, frankly, if you look at the output of the typical editorial page in The State for a week, it pales in comparison to what any decent blogger can put out by noon each day. I get more information, opinion (including counter opinions), and analysis from by noon on Monday than I get from TheState which presumably has a whole team of resources available to deliver content. The fact that Cindi Ross-Scoppe and Warren Bolton ARE NOT running blogs, twitter feeds, appearing on podcasts, radio, tv at every opportunity says a lot about their disconnectedness from the realities of the news/opinion world. Adapt or die.

    Will Folks, love him or hate him, does more reporting than The State does in its entirety.

  18. bud

    Thanks to Will Folks and Corey Hutchins we still have some pretty good investigative reporting in Columbia. Even with the greatly reduced budget you’d think The State could contribute. Not so much though.

  19. bud

    Take for example today’s editorial in The State. It’s about eliminating loopholes for gambling! Seriously let’s give that whole issue a rest. Can’t people decide for themselves whether to throw money into a machine?

  20. Brad

    Doug, you’re ignoring the quality issue — which is something people do a lot of in this new media world.

    I produce more words in a week than Cindi and Warren do, but they are not high-quality words. They are just me reacting to news, which 99 percent of the time is news that’s been turned up by paid, full-time journalists (of which we have fewer and fewer). Very little of what you see here is the result of legwork, beyond the 10-20 browser tabs I have running at any given time.

    Nor is it the result of careful consideration, or any sort of peer review or editing, before it appears. It certainly isn’t backed by the kind of interviewing and reporting that Cindi and Warren still do (although not nearly as much as they once did).

    Someone complimented me on my writing on a post a few days ago. That’s because I had taken a little time on that post — over the course of a couple of days. Consequently, I produced something that lay somewhere between the normal blog post and the columns I wrote for the newspaper. My columns were better than what I post here, generally speaking.

    I think Andrew Sullivan is great and all, but most of his value to me consists in saying “Hey, look at this,” rather than in his commentary. He calls my attention to a lot of interesting things produced painstakingly by other people. That’s a lot of what I do, too.

  21. Brad

    You might want to take note of the fact that the most celebrated columnists in the country usually produce two columns a week. If you’re going to write well, and carefully, and back it up with reporting, that’s a pretty decent output.

    Since I wrote one and sometimes two columns a week on TOP of a job that would have exceeded 40 hours without writing any, my columns were never as good as they would have been if I could have devoted all of my time to them. Although occasionally I produced something I was pleased with.

  22. bud

    Cindi has done some very good work analyzing the General Assembly’s lavish pension. Good job Cindi.

  23. Doug Ross


    And aren’t most of those celebrated columnists all over the TV channels as well? George Will, Charles Krauthammer, and on and on.

    It is possible to produce thoughtful pieces AND do more interactive commentary on a daily basis. I’m sorry if I find it difficult to believe that it takes all week to crank out two columns of the length that are typical of The State’s opinion pieces. 40 hours per week, right?

    The National Review has several contributors to its daily content who also: appear on TV, host daily radio shows, write weekly columns, write entire BOOKS, and deliver speeches. How are they able to do it?

    If your profession is producing opinions, I would think you would do everything in your power to maximize the channels you have at your disposal.

  24. Doug Ross


    Speaking of Cindi’s editorials on the state pension plan, she ends her most recent one with:

    “All eyes are on the House, which makes it extremely unlikely that representatives would dare vote against an amendment to abolish the most egregious part of the Legislature’s special pension system. All we need is someone who’s brave enough to offer it.”

    Wouldn’t this be the perfect opportunity for someone who wants to be governor (say, Vincent Sheheen), to step out of the backrooms of the Senate and implore the House to do the right thing? That would take some guts though.

    Read more here:

  25. Brad

    Well, of course you would “do everything in your power to maximize the channels you have at your disposal.”

    I always have. It’s why I started blogging in 2005. (And, incidentally, was the only journalist in the building really maintaining a well-read blog at the time I was canned.)

    FYI, Cindi and Warren and Beth Padgett at The Greenville News have recently appeared on Twitter and appear to be trying to make up for lost time. Follow the links in the last sentence for those feeds.

  26. Doug Ross

    Do you think the quality of the columns written by George Will, Krauthammer, Friedman, Krugman, etc. have been negatiively impacted by all their other media forays?

    Would Cindi’s columns have more of an impact if she also went on local TV news, radio, twitter, etc. to present the same information (in fact, more without the limitations of space)? Would they have more impact if they were printed on the front page of The State and on the website? Is her goal to change the system or write a column about changing the system?

  27. Silence

    The other thing I learned at Scripps was that the average press operator lost 1/4 finger per year.

  28. Brad

    And of course, I’ve always accepted requests for interviews, public speaking, etc.

    And yes, if I were syndicated with two columns a week (with enough income to support myself from that alone), I would continue to blog, and have time for the first time in my life to write books. Those things tend to mesh together well, and the functions tend to overlap. Time spent on one tends to support the others.

    But when you are part of the machinery of putting out a daily newspaper, you are a captive to that 19th century manufacturing process, especially now.

    12 years ago, being an associate editor at the state allowed you to spend almost all of your time (except for reading proofs in the afternoon) on legwork and writing. Now, those editors have a lot more grunt work to do in publishing those pages — dealing with op-eds, letters, etc. — that they have little time for their core function.

  29. `Kathryn Braun

    Will Folks only covers the state-wide political beat, as does Corey “Clown Editor” Hutchens.Eva Moore covers the city for FT. The State covers several municipalities, and a variety of community areas, including even now gardening and the Arts, as well as the ubiquitous sports sports sports….

  30. `Kathryn Braun

    The State already charges readers content-based amounts–the sports costs, and the other stuff doesn’t.

  31. Brad

    I don’t get the “clown editor” reference.

    As for the GoGamecocks paywall… that’s invisible to me, because the content doesn’t interest me. I have never once run into that wall…

  32. `Kathryn Braun

    On Facebook a few weeks ago, Corey trumpeted the fact that on the masthead of the Free Times, he is now listed as “Clown Editor.” He seemed right chuffed.

  33. `Kathryn Braun

    and the only reason I know about the paywall is because my brother told me.

  34. Brad

    OK, here’s a weird thing about WordPress. In comments, a link in the first few words doesn’t work. I learned sometime back that I have to type a few other words first before I get to a link, or it won’t work.

    Here’s Kathryn’s link.

  35. Brad

    Just read an enjoyable piece, headlined “I Am Still A Newspaperman” by an editor of my generation. He apparently wrote it in the last couple of months before he left the business, ground down by all the people he’d had to lay off.

    It’s a fun read. Perhaps the truest, saddest part of it is this:

    “No instrument will ever serve the public interest so relentlessly as the daily newspaper. New media will successfully distribute data and information. ‘Communities of interest’ will develop around niche products. And while print newspapers will survive to serve a small, elite audience, they never again will serve the larger geographic communities that gave them life and purpose. Democracy will have to find a new public square.”

    True. And I have no idea what, if anything, will ever serve that community-building purpose in the future.

  36. Brad

    Oh, as for winning “the comment prize” on Facebook… what’d I say?

    I tried to go look, but I can never navigate on Facebook back to where I was earlier in the day.

    I hate Facebook…

  37. `Kathryn Braun

    You said,”It’s a new political medium: Campaign signage for ironic effect.”

    Two people liked it. Another friend added on that “Barron for Coroner–Saving Lives” works, and Corey Hutchins pointed out that Urban Outfitters did a photo shoot around here and made a special effort to capture that campaign sign. Facebook is fine if you know how to use it.

  38. Brad

    Yep. The resemblance is uncanny.

    I’ve gotta go. I need to take a quick nap in my office, then I need to go dump all my work on Peggy, and then rush over to talk Joan out of something…

  39. `Kathryn Braun

    Peggy done flew the coop, or haven’t you seen this week’s ep? You’re stuck with Ginzburg….

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