A downbeat media roundup: Buffett disappoints, startups falter and publications die

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Has there been a more disappointing newspaper owner than Warren Buffett? When Buffett bought 63 papers from the Media General chain in 2012 for $142 million, it looked like the billionaire investor might play a significant role in reinventing local journalism. 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 Buffett liked newspapers — so much so that 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 assisting with the writing, according to a 2014 account in The Wall Street Journal. He was also a trusted adviser to the Graham family back when they controlled The Washington Post and he was a shareholder. “By the spring of 1974,” Katharine Graham wrote in her memoir, “Personal Story,” “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 has been talking down the newspaper business for years — and last week he was at it again. “They’re going to disappear,” he told Yahoo Finance editor-in-chief Andy Serwer, citing the ongoing decline of advertising. He did allow that three national papers, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, might survive. But everyone else was “toast.”

Certainly they’re going to be toast with owners like Buffett. As I wrote in my book “The Return of the Moguls,” Buffett has allowed his managers to cut hundreds of jobs from his newspapers in recent years, even as his fellow multibillionaire Jeff Bezos has overseen growth and profits at the Post.

Perhaps it would be too much to expect someone in his 80s to dedicate himself to figuring out the future of the newspapers he had acquired. But Buffett was ideally positioned to bring in the sorts of minds who might apply themselves to the task of saving smaller papers. 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.

Buffett is by no means the worst owner a newspaper could have — not with hedge funds and corporate chains slashing and burning their way through the mediascape. But anyone who hoped he would establish himself as an innovative force in recalibrating the economics of journalism has to be disappointed.

Two high-profile startups misfire

The meltdown of two high-profile digital startups raises questions about not just what went wrong, but whether there were any warning signs we should have paid more attention to.

The more disheartening of the two is The Correspondent, a Dutch website that recently concluded a successful fundraising campaign to launch what we all thought was going to be a U.S. edition. The project, funded through a membership model, is free of advertising and is based on the idea of journalists and readers engaging in an ongoing conversation. Among the early enthusiasts was Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University. And me: I wrote about the project two years ago, made a donation to the site last fall, and urged others to do the same.

Recently, though, we learned that there wasn’t going to be a separate U.S. edition after all. Instead, there would be an English-language edition, based in Amsterdam, and the New York office would be closed now that the fundraising campaign had concluded. The founders took to Twitter to explain that we had misunderstood them. Had we somehow gotten it wrong?

No, according to Zainab Shah, a former BuzzFeed journalist who was The Correspondent’s first U.S. hire. In a devastating piece last Friday by Laura Hazard Owen at Nieman Lab, Shah said she took the job after being told she would head up what would in fact be a U.S. edition headquartered in New York, and that she recently quit after the founders made clear that it wasn’t going to happen.

“They’re really good at the PR thing, and it really feels like gaslighting,” Shah said. “They were like, ‘Well, we never promised a U.S. newsroom.’ I was like: Wait, did I just imagine all this?”

I should note that the founders continue to defend themselves and that Shah’s experience is just one data point. Still, this is bad news for those of us who hoped that The Correspondent represented a new way of doing journalism — “optimized for trust,” to use Rosen’s phrase.

Also running off the rails last week was The Markup, intended as a source of data-driven journalism about the largest technology companies. Months before its scheduled launch, co-founder and editor-in-chief Julia Angwin, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, was fired by chief executive Sue Gardner, whom Angwin had helped recruit, and replaced by another co-founder, Jeff Larson. Five of the seven editorial employees quit in support of Angwin, and Craig Newmark, the Craigslist billionaire who provided much of the funding, is said to be involved in getting the project back on track.

What exactly went wrong is too convoluted to get into here. For that, I recommend Mathew Ingram’s detailed overview at the Columbia Journalism Review. (Although I salute Angwin if it proves true that her sins included refusing to take a Myers-Briggs personality test.)

The larger issue with both The Correspondent and The Markup is whether there are any lessons in these two very different situations. I wish I could say there was — but at least in the case of The Correspondent we could see trouble brewing from some distance. Last fall, for instance, the site was involved in a nasty public dispute with Sarah Kendzior, a contributor to the Dutch-language site. The facts remain murky, though it was clear that something was amiss.

And then, as I’ve noted, The Correspondent’s founders not only reneged on their promise to launch a U.S. edition in the United States, but they claimed they had never said any such thing. That was gently disputed by none other than Rosen himself at his blog, Press Think, back in March.

“Through 2017 and much of 2018 we shared a default assumption that The Correspondent would be based in New York,” he wrote. “I call it a ‘default’ because we never sat down to decide it, and there was no real cost study or strategic analysis behind it. Rather, we had opened a campaign office in New York (with borrowed office space) and it seemed like that would evolve into The Correspondent’s newsroom.”

My only takeaway is that startups can be problematic. I’ll be watching The Correspondent closely and hoping its English-language edition proves to be worthwhile — although it will be a long time before I make another donation.

As for The Markup, I can only trust that Newmark, having already stepped in, will do the right thing. I assume that means bringing back Angwin in some top role, even if Gardner is not completely wrong about her alleged shortcomings as a manager.

The end of the road

New England lost two venerable publications in recent weeks.

Last week The Improper Bostonian, a free glossy magazine covering lifestyles, entertainment, and the arts, announced that its current issue would be its last after 28 years. “It was ultimately a family decision, that was really the bottom line,” owner and publisher Wendy Semonian Eppich told Folio, which covers the magazine business. “It was heavily based on finances, but it goes bigger than finances and that is critical and that is the truth.”

Several weeks earlier The Portland Phoenix, the last of the Phoenix newspapers, was shut down by its current owner, according to the Bangor Daily News. The Phoenix traces its roots to the Boston After Dark, founded by the late Stephen Mindich in 1966. At one time the papers included editions in Boston, Providence, Worcester, and Portland. I was on staff at The Boston Phoenix for many years, and I wrote the cover story for the Portland paper’s debut in 1999 — a profile of Maine’s then-senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both moderate Republican women.

The fortunes of free publications with free websites have diminished to the vanishing point as advertising revenues continue to crater. We’re lucky that we still have DigBoston, a for-profit alternative weekly allied with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.

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Is trust-based journalism the future? Jay Rosen thinks so.

Jay Rosen announced last week that he would be taking a role with The Correspondent, the American version of a Dutch news project that its founders hope to launch next year. Rosen, a New York University journalism professor and one of our most perceptive media observers, explained in an essay for the Nieman Journalism Lab that he was intrigued because The Correspondent has been “optimized for trust.” Among other things, the site will be free of advertising, and reporters will be required to engage in an ongoing conversation with their readers.

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