The final act is about to be consummated in Warren Buffett’s disappointing dalliance with the newspaper business. Despite the legendary investor’s self-professed love for newspapers, he ran the newspapers he acquired starting in 2012 as a hopeless cause rather than investing in them as his fellow billionaires Jeff Bezos did with The Washington Post and John Henry did with The Boston Globe.
Buffett eventually sold his papers — including his hometown Omaha World-Herald — to Lee Enterprises. And on Monday we learned that the predatory hedge fund Alden Global Capital is now attempting to purchase Lee’s 90 daily newspapers, which are located in 26 states. The death watch has begun.
I wrote about Buffett’s track record as a newspaper owner in my book “The Return of the Moguls.” Here’s an excerpt.
When Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway investment company purchased 63 newspapers from the Media General chain in 2012 for $142 million, the news was greeted with the hope that the legendary octogenarian might be just the person to show the way forward. Buffett bolstered his new holdings by extending loans to those papers totaling $445 million. It was a generous gesture with which Aaron Kushner and his investors, who also wanted the papers, could not compete. A year earlier Buffett had bought his hometown paper, the Omaha World-Herald, along with six other papers for $200 million. He already owned The Buffalo News. And in those pre-Bezos days, he held a substantial number of shares in The Washington Post Co. “Does Warren E. Buffett want to be a media mogul?” asked The New York Times.
Certainly Buffett had the right pedigree. Not only was he a brilliant financial thinker, but he had long loved newspapers and had been a close adviser to the Graham family at The Washington Post for many years. He even had a hand in winning a Pulitzer Prize: in 1973, when he was the owner of the Omaha Sun, he helped his reporters investigate a local charity by finding documents, providing financial analysis, and even assisting with the writing. Katharine Graham praised Buffett fulsomely in her autobiography, saying that he became a trusted confidant after he invested in the Washington Post Co. “By the spring of 1974,” she wrote, “Warren was sending me a constant flow of helpful memos with advice, and occasionally alerting me to problems of which I was unaware.”
Yet Buffett, astute financier that he is, expressed skepticism about prospects for the newspaper business after it entered its long decline. In 2009, for instance, he said he had no interest in purchasing papers, because their financial outlook was so grim. “For most newspapers in the United States, we would not buy them at any price,” he said. “They have the possibility of going to just unending losses.” And though he later reversed himself, his acquisition strategy gravitated toward papers of the type that still do reasonably well: those in medium-sized markets where the local paper is the principal source of regional and community news and where competition from the internet is less a factor than it is in large cities. Buffett’s papers carry little debt and are profitable. In the spring of 2016, though, he admitted that the picture was continuing to darken for the newspaper business and that he was no closer to finding a way out than anyone else.
“We haven’t cracked the code yet,” he told USA Today. “Circulation continues to decline at a significant pace, advertising at an even faster pace. The easy cutting has taken place. There’s no indication that anyone besides the national papers has found a way.” He added that even though all of his papers were making money (at that time he was up to 32 dailies and 47 weeklies), that might not be the case in future years. “If you have a problem in five years, you have a problem now,” he said. Buffett doubled down on those remarks in early 2017, telling CNBC that The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and possibly The Washington Post were the only newspapers he believed had an “assured future,” explaining, “They have developed an online presence that people will pay for.”
Less than two months later, the hammer came down at BH Media, the company Buffett had set up to manage his newspapers. BH Media announced the termination of 289 positions throughout the chain, including the elimination of 108 vacant jobs. The BH Media president and chief executive officer, Terry Kroeger, told the Omaha World-Herald that Buffett had been informed of the reductions but that “his opinion was not sought or offered,” in keeping with Buffett’s hands-off investment philosophy. Kroeger blamed the papers’ declining revenue on changes in retail advertising, and especially on the move to online shopping — an irony given how the most successful of the new breed of newspaper owners, Jeff Bezos, made his money. Buffett’s World-Herald did not suffer any cuts at that time. But then, in May, BH Media reduced the size of the Omaha paper and eliminated three jobs, according to a memo to the staff from the executive editor, Melissa Matczak.
For a self-confessed newspaper fan whose net worth was roughly the same as that of Bezos (more than $60 billion apiece in mid-2016), Buffett’s role in helping to figure out the future of journalism might be considered disappointingly modest. Perhaps it would be too much to expect someone in his mid-80s to dedicate himself to figuring out the future of the newspapers he had acquired. But he was ideally positioned to bring in the sorts of minds who might apply themselves to the task of saving smaller papers in much the same way that Bezos and Henry were attempting to reinvent their much larger properties. Surely Buffett understands as much as anyone that readers and advertisers will put up with an ever-diminishing paper for only so long before an irreversible downward spiral sets in.