Paper purchases such as those in Texas by Buffett group signal signs of hope

Newspapers have taken hits over the past decade. A combination of economic factors combined with the technological explosion including the Internet have shaken the foundations of the printed paper.The turmoil continues to this day what with Advance Publications leaving a good portion of the Gulf Coast without newspapers printed daily in New Orleans, Pascagoula, Miss., and Mobile, Ala.

Still, some signs suggest the ink-stained wretch may not be relegated to the past.

Economic stresses of one type or the other seemed to plague the newspaper industry for most of the 15 years I worked full-time for three papers. Well actually four as I was managing editor for an 8,000-circulation weekly but the fit was wrong and I quit after less than a month there so I don’t count it. One factor in particular affecting papers was the cost of newsprint which rose along with the cost of energy. Various other changes in the market, while not drastic, made its impact on the industry such as in classified advertising. When I first started working as a small-town weekly newspaper editor in 1990, the classified ad was quickly headed down a dark alley. The growth of Wal-Mart also made its mark on newspaper fortunes when its stores popped up, seemingly overnight, and drove smaller, established businesses — also newspaper advertisers — out of business.

Lo and behold came the Internet and rocked newspapers to the very core of the way they operated, in both the news and monetary end. The “pajama-clad” Internet commentator hailed the demise of the printed newspaper. The “citizen journalist” would now take over and save the world. Many editors and publishers foolishly believed the anonymous experts who said newspaper would become a relic of the past thanks to their beloved “Internets,” as one U.S. president used to call it.

But not so fast my PJ-attired friends. All is not as it seems. For instance, while his neighboring newspapers to the east and west — owned by the aforementioned Advance Publications and that are set to send many score of employees packing as well as cutting back on printed editions — The Sun Herald on the Mississippi Gulf Coast has its engines set at full speed ahead.

Glenn Nardi, president and publisher, of the Biloxi-based 47,000-daily/56,000-Sunday daily wants to see the paper grow through print, Web and phone.

 “To paraphrase Mark Twain: ‘Reports of print’s death are greatly exaggerated.’ In fact, the Audit Bureau of Circulation, the nonprofit organization created and supported by the advertising community to measure newspaper and magazine audiences, reports that newspaper paid circulation grew in the last audited six-month period.”

One of the five richest people on the planet also sees something worth putting his money where his mouth is when speaking of papers. Berkshire-Hathaway Chairman Warren Buffett is purchasing newspapes left and right, no pun intended, seeing as how Buffett has been a major backer of President Obama. And some see Obama as left wing. Get it? Oh forget it. The one-time paper boy, Buffett, bought his hometown Omaha World-Herald and hasn’t stopped buying newspapers.
The Omaha World-Herald Co. subsidiary of Berkshire announced last week it has bought its second Texas newspaper, the Waco Tribune-Herald, after purchasing the Bryan-College Station paper, the Eagle. The company also announced today that it closed the deal on purchasing the 63 newspaper properties of Media General with its largest property The Tampa Tribune. A full-disclosure note, this blogger is closely connected to someone who spent almost a decade as a writer at the Waco newspaper. Since I am limited by a confidentiality agreement, I can’t say much more about the Waco Trib except it was and remains a very good daily paper. The Berkshire-Hathaway people are purchasing the Trib from Robinson Media, which bought the Trib from Atlanta-based Cox newspapers. Waco insurance magnate Clifton Robinson and his son, Gordon, bought their hometown paper three years ago but said they are convinced that it should be run by “media professionals.” The paper made news not long after the Robinsons took over the Trib when they put “In God We Trust” on the paper’s flag, the Page 1 newspaper name at the top. Perhaps that isn’t so far out since Waco is home to Baylor, the world’s largest Baptist university, which was also attended by both Robinsons. Buffett has said editorial decisions will be left with local newspapers such as editorial board choice of candidates.
Maybe Buffett, like the Waco family Robinson, just always wanted to own newspapers. But the “Omaha Oracle” isn’t too sloppy with his business acumen. Perhaps the purchases by Berkshire-Hathaway are a whim. But  I would imagine many who know business much better than I do would doubt it.
It will be interesting to see how a familiar paper turns out under the chairmanship of Warren Buffett. I hope for only good, as I think the purchases by Berkshire-Hathaway signal ahead.


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