Given the events of the past decade, it qualifies as a shocker when a really smart guy buys a whole bunch of newspapers. That’s the big media-news story of the day: Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway is spending $142 million to purchase 63 dailies and weeklies from Media General Inc. of Richmond. (Berkshire Hathaway owns a substantial minority stake in The Washington Post Co., and Buffett is a former longtime member of the company’s board of directors.)
Sixty-three dailies and weeklies, huh? Well, what papers are we talking about here?
We’re talking about the Goochland Gazette. The Midlothian Exchange.The Floyd Press. Marion Star & Mullins Enterprise. Media General is stocked with community papers throughout the South, and all of them — with the exception of the company’s Tampa media cluster — are going to Buffett. The headliner among the transferees is the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
So why would a multibillionaire dabble in a bunch of community papers? Because they’re the most reliable segment of the business. While the big regional and national newspapers have elevated the crisis of newspapering to a countrywide obsession — complete with constant updates on circulation losses, drops in advertising revenues and the like — small weeklies and dailies have been plodding along. Not printing money, mind you, but making a living.
In 2008, I profiled the Current Newspapers, a publisher of community papers in D.C.: Georgetown Current, the Dupont Current, the Foggy Bottom Current, and the Northwest Current (two editions). At the time, Publisher and Editor Davis Kennedy told me that his properties had generated average advertising gains of 15 percent per year over the previous eight years. How have these papers fared since then? Kennedy tells me today that things aren’t quite so rosy “but we are still in the black.”
Slow, steady, unspectacular gains: Sounds a lot like a Buffett investment.
A key reason why a community paper has an edge over highly troubled larger papers, says Kennedy, is exclusivity. “We generate about 90 percent of the news we carry,” he says. That means it’s not commodity news — stuff that’s available via Google News and every other newspaper and TV website in the country.
The prospect of a thriving community press is a great thing to consider, until you actually read it. A top story right now on one of Media General’s newspaper sites is “Florence County School District Three superintendent calls for community questions.” Another site gives prominent play to this piece: “Meadows of Dan centenarian values faith and family.” At yet another it’s “Festival looks to repeat success.” A note to journos: The Oracle of Omaha is telling you that your future may well lie in festival coverage.