Besides mowing lawns and shoveling snow, my very first job as a lad was an Omaha World-Herald newspaper route. I delivered the paper every day to about 40 customers in the south end of Council Bluffs, Iowa. That’s why the headline that Warren Buffett has purchased the OWH attracted my attention.
The price, reportedly, is $150 million plus the assumption of $50 million of debt. Two-hundred-thousand bucks for a business that Buffett once told his shareholders has a “potential for unending losses.” The biggest problems newspapers face are 24-hour cable news outlets and Internet news websites. They have drawn readers away from newspapers causing many of them to close or to operate at a deficit.
It is my hope that Buffett’s bet on the future of the newspaper is a winner. Not because he needs any more money, but because citizens in a free society need good journalism. Buffett said there are many things newspapers can do “better than any other media.” He’s right about that. Here are two things newspapers do better: reach a local audience and explain the news with context and gravity.
Newspapers reach people where they live. Your local paper is, well, local, and that’s good. Local government, business, education, sports, non-profits, etc. all need the newspaper to tell their stories and to be held accountable for their actions. Newspapers give news stories context and appropriate significance. Newspapers are more than three-sentence sound-bites. Watch any TV newscast, even the 24-hour cable news stations, and most of their stories are fewer than a few sentences long. It’s simply not possible to explain the complexities of a 2000-page bill in congress or a bombing in New Delhi or a natural disaster in the Pacific with five sentences and a 13-second video shot from a helicopter.
Of course, in depth reporting is expensive – hence the $50-million World-Herald debt. That’s the problem I hope Warren Buffett can solve – not with the constant infusion of new investor money, but with an entrepreneurial solution. That solution that will make print news profitable once again – profitable for both news producers and news consumers.