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Buffett bets big on journalism

Published December 3, 2011 1:01 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Something I have in common with Warren Buffett: We both grew up reading The Omaha World-Herald.

He probably read the stock tables. I favored the Smoky Stover comic strip. Both were surrealistic mash-ups of multiple data points that made you feel clever when you had puzzled them out. And neither are found in print much any more.

My copies had to be trucked in 280 miles, from the very eastern edge of Nebraska, where all of the state's institutions and most of its population were to be found, to my little town darn near to Colorado. His came from just down the street. In fact, when Buffett was a young man, he had a World-Herald paper route, the first job en route to his current status as the Oracle of Omaha and one of the richest men in the world.

Rich enough that, when he says, "Honey, I'm just going out to buy a newspaper," the phrase takes on a whole 'nother meaning.

Last week, Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway investment firm decided to invest $200 million in purchasing the newspaper. Like previous owners of the OWH, he did so in part to preserve its status as one of the few newspapers of any size to be owned by people who live in the city it serves.

It was a shock because it wasn't that long ago that Buffett, who can go on at length about how much he loves to read newspapers and how important they are for both democracy and the free market, had said that newspapers were no longer such a good investment.

Most of them — like the other newspaper he owns outright, The Buffalo News of New York State — had long ago lost their status as the primary source of both information and advertising.

(Another Six Degrees of Warren Buffett fact: I, in some sort of premature senior moment fog, left Salt Lake City and went to work for The Buffalo News for four years. Never saw Buffett. Only knew that he had declined an offer to write a monthly finance column for the editorial page editor I worked for on the grounds that he didn't have 12 ideas to write about.)

Most newspapers have been struggling of late. We've lost many readers and huge percentages of our ad revenue to online operations that, unlike their legacy rivals, aren't weighed down by either the social responsibility to do quality journalism or the costs of depreciating assets such as printing presses, delivery trucks and editorial page columnists.

But the World-Herald has been aggressive about moving online. It has built multiple platforms and has a ready audience in a state where, while there aren't that many people, everyone is a ravenous consumer of anything to do with the price of corn or the prospects of the University of Nebraska's football team.

Buffett's own mantra is, "If you don't know jewels, know the jeweler." So his purchase is apparently driven by a belief that the newspaper's managers know what they are doing as they negotiate their way into the Brave New World of online information-mongering.

Meanwhile, Digital First Media, new corporate manager of your own Salt Lake Tribune, is adopting a digital first outlook. It is even offering money, machines and, crucially, time to staffers so they can figure out how to do it.

Pundits writing about Buffett's buy can't resist comparing him to the Orson Welles character Charles Foster Kane, another rich man, whose last wise words were, "I think it would be fun to run a newspaper."

It was. And it will be again, once we figure out how to distribute more news on less paper.

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, has three tenuous digital beachheads established: www.sltrib.com/blogs/debate, facebook.com/stateofthedebate and Twitter.com @debatestate.




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