Warren Buffett still thinks newspapers are doomed

Warren Buffett in a 2010 White House photo

The self-made billionaire Warren Buffett has been a disappointment ever since he started buying newspapers. According to Bloomberg News, he believes that all except a few national papers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post are doomed — echoing remarks he’s been making for several years. Here’s what I wrote about Buffett in “The Return of the Moguls”:

For a self-confessed newspaper fan whose net worth was roughly the same as that of [Jeff] 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-eighties 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 [John] 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.

Buffett isn’t the worst newspaper owner out there by any means. But as someone who has taken a great interest in newspapers over the years (among other things, he was a close adviser to former Post publisher Katharine Graham), it seems to me that he could have done more.

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Jeff Bezos just made good on an unusual promise about body parts and wringers

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

This seems rather prescient given the events of the past few days. Here’s what Jeff Bezos told Washington Post staffers in 2013, shortly after it was announced he’d buy the paper. From “The Return of the Moguls”:

In his message to Washington Post staff members the day that the purchase was announced, Bezos alluded to an infamous moment during Watergate when Nixon henchman John Mitchell barked at Bernstein that “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer” if a particularly damaging story were published. Bezos wrote, “While I hope no one ever threatens to put one of my body parts through a wringer, if they do, thanks to Mrs. Graham’s example, I’ll be ready.” As we shall see, it was not long before Bezos would be put to the test.

The first quote is from Katharine Graham’s autobiography, “Personal History”; the second is from a Post account of the sale.

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Digital First wants to buy Gannett, endangering local newspapers across the U.S.

It’s hard to imagine worse news for the beleaguered business of local journalism. The Wall Street Journal reported (sub. req.) on Sunday that Digital First Media, the hedge-fund-owned chain notorious for squeezing out the last drop of blood from its newspapers, is trying to buy Gannett. Brian Stelter has posted an update at CNN.com.

Gannett is best known for publishing USA Today — which, though it’s a perfectly fine paper, it’s mainly something to look at when you’re in a hotel. The real story is its vast chain of local newspapers, which are listed here. New England is a nearly Gannett-free zone, with the Burlington Free Press of Vermont being its only holding. By contrast, New Jersey, with eight Gannett local news properties, would be devastated. Digital First owns three papers in Massachusetts: the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.

According to USA Today, Gannett had not received an offer from Digital First as of Sunday night. But it’s for real, as Jeff Sonderman of the American Press Institute tweeted:

Not to praise Gannett too much. Back when the newspaper business was considerably healthier than it is today, media critics like the late Ben Badgikian reported that Gannett insisted on profit margins of 30 percent, 40 percent or more, cutting considerably into their public service mission. In recent years, Gannett has cut the Burlington Free Press to the bone. In “The Return of the Moguls,” I wrote about an alternative media ecosystem in Burlington that had grown in response to the decline of the Free Press. It’s only gotten worse at the Free Press since I did my reporting in late 2015.

But Gannett, a publicly traded company, and GateHouse Media, another hedge-fund-owned chain, at least seem to be in the business of trying to chart a path to the future. Digital First and its owner, Alden Global Capital, by contrast, appear to be in what economists refer to as “harvesting” mode, taking the last few dollars out of their shrinking newspapers before shutting them down or selling them off.

I’ve written about Digital First several times. Most recently, I wrote for WGBHNews.org about a report from the University of North Carolina called “The Expanding News Desert,” which was highly critical of Digital First and GateHouse. In 2014, I tracked the history of Digital First in New Haven for The Huffington Post — from bankruptcy to a fascinating experiment under the visionary leadership of John Paton and then back to bottom-line-oriented cost-cutting.

Let’s just hope the Gannett board decides to fight rather than give in.

Update: Ken Doctor writes at the Nieman Journalism Lab that Gannett may try to escape Digital First’s clutches by running into the arms of Tribune Publishing, known until recently as tronc.

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What the new owner of the Los Angeles Times can learn from Jeff Bezos

Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron (left) and Jeff Bezos in 2016. Photo from a Post video.

Last week a years-long ownership crisis at the Los Angeles Times may have come to an end. Patrick Soon-Shiong, a billionaire surgeon and entrepreneur, purchased the Times from tronc for a reported $500 million.

Drawing on the lessons I write about in my new book, “The Return of the Moguls,” I e-talked with Dave Beard about what lessons Soon-Shiong could learn from Jeff Bezos’ vision for The Washington Post, and why other billionaire owners both good (John Henry of The Boston Globe) and bad (Sam Zell, who ran the former Tribune newspapers into the ground) have had a rougher go of it.

Our conversation is now up at Poynter.org, and I hope you’ll take a look.

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McGrory says the Globe will pass 100,000 digital subs in the next six months

Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory closed out 2017 with a characteristically upbeat message for his staff. Weighing in at nearly 900 words, his email — sent out at 8:30 p.m. on Sunday and passed along to me by a newsroom source — looks back on the paper’s journalistic successes of the past year and forward to continued progress on the business front.

There is no mention of how badly the Globe’s botched launch of its Taunton printing plant affected the bottom line. The situation has improved to the point where it’s no longer the talk of social media, but I continue to hear about delivery problems from time to time. Nor is there any mention of dark clouds on the horizon. But the Boston Herald, an important print customer of the Globe, has gone bankrupt and is likely to end up in the hands of GateHouse Media, which has several printing plants of its own in the region. In addition, a burgeoning trade war with Canada could drive up the cost of newsprint, according to a Bloomberg story that actually appears in today’s Globe.

On the other hand, McGrory writes that the Globe continues to make progress in selling $30-a-month digital subscriptions, John Henry’s make-or-break bet for saving the paper and possibly showing the way for other large regional newspapers as well. McGrory predicts that the Globe will pass the 100,000 mark during the first half of 2018 and says the paper currently has more paying subscribers — print and digital — than it had five years ago. Early last year, when I interviewed McGrory for my forthcoming book, “The Return of the Moguls,” he put it this way: “If we got to 100,000 things would be feeling an awful lot better. And if we got to 200,000, I think we’d be well on our way to establishing a truly sustainable future.”

The full text of McGrory’s message follows.

Hey all,

There was a stretch in early December when our homepage and print fronts were filled with stories of the state Senate president stepping aside because of Globe reporting, three Bridgewater State Prison guards on trial because of Globe reporting, and a federal indictment of a state senator based on Globe reporting.  The thought hit me then, as it does tonight, that there’s not another metropolitan newspaper in this land that has the impact on its community that the Globe does on Boston. Really, name one. And if the question is why, as in why is the Globe so central to the civic life of this region, the answer in no small part is you.

I’m not going to spend time now trying to recap the year we just had; it would be futile to try to capture such an epic collection of once-a-generation events in an email like this. Suffice it to say that your response, your journalism, from January to December, Sports to Spotlight, the initial days of Trump to the burgeoning MeToo movement, was nothing shy of spectacular.

In terms of our DC bureau, have four reporters and an editor ever had such a profound impact providing desperately needed perspective to events unfolding with dizzying speed? The answer: No. Metro and Business, the backbone of our report, continued their stellar accountability reporting, beautiful narrative writing, and the kind of perfectly-timed features that gave readers a break from all things Trump.

This was the year when we finally realized the goal of publishing multiple Spotlight projects, without ever sacrificing quality, culminating in the vital series on race that launched a difficult but overdue conversation across the region. Our sports coverage is so great, so consistently, that it’s easy to take for granted — but please don’t. As strong as it always is, this year was better than any that I can remember.

There’s so much more. 2017 may well have been the year of the columnist, with ours breaking news and offering clarity. Photo, from its arresting daily hits to gorgeous project work, had a banner year again. Our weekly sections — Food, Travel, Address, the Globe Magazine, Sunday Arts — are recognized as among the absolute best in the industry.

This was the year that we enthusiastically ramped up our headline writing, print and digital. It’s the year we started to change the look and feel of our site, thanks to our great design team. It’s the year we broke convention in the ways we tell stories, most notably with two productions of Globe Live that were nothing shy of masterful, and our sports podcast, Season Ticket, which started with well-deserved fanfare and is rapidly gaining audience. WBUR, by the way, is a great partner.

And the most enduring part of the year I’ve yet to mention, which was our reinvention. We created new departments, new philosophies, new beats, new roles. It’s been hard, often anxiety-inducing work, but it’s paid off spectacularly. Our Express Desk, and all the urgent teamwork that goes into it, is a thing of beauty. Our Super Department is gelling now in the exact ways that we hoped. The audience engagement team has brought insight into our coverage decisions. Stories are getting edited earlier and posted at far more impactful times. Many of the new beats have been a huge hit. We are finally — finally — starting to break the stubborn rhythms of a print operation.

And the metrics bring nothing but good news. The key figure: We increased the number of digital-only subscribers by 26 percent in 2017, simply a phenomenal success. We’re closing in on 95,000, and will be at 100,000 in the first half of the year. Overall, we have more paying subscribers now than we did five years ago. It is impossible to overstate how important this is, and the enviable position that this kind of digital growth puts us in.

And one more thing: We moved from Morrissey Boulevard to State Street, in and of itself a huge accomplishment, which we basically fit between everything else. And it already feels like home, the Globe exactly where it belongs, in the heart of the city — even if everyone is still acting a notch too polite.

Yet again, wouldn’t it be great to rest on our successes for a year, but alas, no. The news is not about to slow down, not now, not for a while. Please don’t panic when I talk about Reinvention 2.0, but there is more work to be done, more beats to invent and refine, and better and more productive relationships to build between the newsroom and the rest of the building. We will do all of this in a far less disruptive fashion.

One more thought for 2018: Let’s rededicate ourselves, and by ourselves I mean everyone, to a better balance between work and the rest of life. Some of the most meaningful journalism isn’t conjured under the fluorescent lights of even a beautiful downtown newsroom. No, it’s discovered in our communities, by journalists living eventful lives. We should work hard, yes, but let’s commit to working a little less, and by doing so, I guarantee our work will improve.

For now, though, thank you for all that you did in a year unlike any other. You’ve been amazing, and it’s been an honor.

Brian

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What will GateHouse Media do with the Boston Herald?

There is so much local media news breaking today that it’s hard to keep it all straight. Late this afternoon came the huge announcement that Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell, who bought the tabloid from his mentor Rupert Murdoch in 1994, was taking the paper into bankruptcy with the intention of selling it to GateHouse Media.

I’ve posted the clip of us talking about the deal on “Beat the Press.” Here is the Herald’s coverage. And here is The Boston Globe’s. The Boston Business Journal has some interesting details as well, including the bankruptcy filing. I talked with Jenna Fisher of Patch about what’s next.

At this point, we all have far more questions than answers. A friend suggested something to me a little while ago that is worth pondering: Can we be sure that GateHouse will end up with the Herald? Once a business goes into bankruptcy, it’s up for grabs. As I note in my forthcoming book, “The Return of the Moguls,” the executives who were running California’s Orange County Register took that paper into bankruptcy several years ago with the goal of buying it themselves. They lost out, and today the Register is part of the Digital First Media empire.

Other questions: Although cuts have already been announced, will the diminished Herald be its old recognizable blend of local news, good photography and sports coverage, and feisty tabloidism? Or will it be something else entirely? Will GateHouse keep Herald Radio up and running? Will it honor its printing contract with the Globe, or will it move operations to a GateHouse facility? We’ll learn the answers to all these questions in the weeks and months to come.

Interestingly, for a few years Purcell owned around 100 community papers in Eastern Massachusetts in addition to the Herald, selling all but the Herald to GateHouse about 15 years ago. Now things have come full circle.

No one wants to see hard-working journalists lose their jobs. We all hope GateHouse will keep the pain to a minimum, and that the Herald will be with us for many years to come.

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Globe editor McGrory talks numbers at First Amendment gathering

Because I get memos, this blog is perhaps more dedicated to the words and thoughts of Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory than is strictly necessary. But he does lead New England’s largest news organization, and we all care about the fate of the Globe at a time of economic uncertainty. So I thought I’d pass along a bit of what McGrory had to say at last week’s New England First Amendment Institute.

First, some numbers. McGrory said the newsroom currently employs about 225 full-time journalists, down considerably from its heyday of about 540 at the turn of the century. Last spring, when I was wrapping up reporting for “The Return of the Moguls,” my not-yet-published book on Globe owner John Henry, Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos and other wealthy newspaper publishers, the number I heard was 240. Counting bodies is more difficult than you might imagine. I don’t think there has been any significant change since last spring — just different ways of measuring the size of the staff.

McGrory also said that classified-ad revenue has dropped from $180 million a year when the newspaper business was at its peak to about $10 million today. Again, nothing that will surprise people who watch the newspaper business, but a reminder of why newspapers are not what they used to be.

On a more positive note, the Globe has signed up 92,000 digital-only subscribers, continuing its momentum from the spring, when it was around 80,000. Despite the Globe’s progress, McGrory acknowledged that it no longer has the largest number of digital-only subscribers among regional dailies. That distinction now belongs to the Los Angeles Times. But of course the LA area is far larger than Greater Boston, and digital subscriptions to the LA Times are much cheaper than they are to the Globe, which charges $30 a month.

McGrory attributed this rise to the Trump effect, which has driven paid subscriptions to The New York Times over the 2 million mark and another 1 million at The Washington Post. Though the Globe has focused mainly on local and regional news in response to the changing economics of journalism, it maintains a robust Washington bureau. In fact, McGrory said the bureau is actually adding a person, bringing it to six.

Finally, and perhaps of the greatest significance, he said that 87 people have different jobs in the Globe newsroom since the staff-led reinvention that went into effect earlier this year. The two ideas behind the reinvention: (1) to report the news online throughout the day and move away from the habits formed by the daily cycle of the print edition; and (2) to focus on being a “paper of interest” rather than a “paper of record” that dutifully cranks out stories that few people read.

Nothing about the Globe’s ongoing print problems, but McGrory had addressed that just a few days earlier in a memo to the staff. McGrory essentially described the problem as having eased. That comports with what I’ve heard, though there are still plenty of complaints from longtime customers about missed papers, early editions without scores from the previous night’s game, missing sections and the like.

Despite the difficulties facing daily papers, McGrory told the NEFAI crowd, “We have more readers of Boston Globe journalism than we have ever had in the history of the Globe,” an assertion that takes into account the paper’s print and digital readers, Boston.com and Stat, a health- and life-sciences vertical that’s part of Boston Globe Media.

As John Henry ponders the huge expenses he has no doubt incurred from the print fiasco, I hope he’ll keep in mind that people will not pay for a diminishing product. It could be disastrous if he offsets those expenses with another big cut in the newsroom. The upward momentum in digital subscriptions is the key to the Globe’s future. But that momentum will stall quickly if people start to believe that they’re not getting their money’s worth.

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