Didn't investor extraordinaire Warren Buffett get the memo about newspapers being dying dinosaurs?
It was one thing when he decided to buy his hometown Omaha World-Herald and related properties last year. Sure, he said he was acquiring a well-run company, but clearly civic concerns were part of the equation.
But spending $142 million to buy 63 dailies and weeklies from Media General? Has the Oracle of Omaha lost his mind?
Buffett's rationale for buying the papers is pretty basic. "In towns and cities where there is a strong sense of community, there is no more important institution than the local paper," Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, said in a statement "The many locales served by the newspapers we are acquiring fall firmly in this mold and we are delighted they have found a permanent home with Berkshire Hathaway."
The properties Buffett is buying are medium-size and small papers in medium-size and small markets. The largest paper among his new pickups is the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which has a daily circulation of 115,000 and a Sunday circulation of 165,000. The second biggest is North Carolina's Winston-Salem Journal, whose comparable numbers are 58,000 and 76,000. The one Media General paper he didn't buy was its largest, the Tampa Tribune.
For the most part, as newspaper analyst and AJR columnist John Morton has pointed out, even in these challenging times, smaller papers such as the ones Buffett is buying have tended to fare better than their struggling counterparts in major metro markets. There are a number of reasons for this. For one thing, as Morton has written, they were not as dependent on classified advertising, a craigslist casualty, as their big city brethren. Their markets are not nearly as competitive and complex, and often the smaller dailies and weeklies have closer relationships to their communities.
It didn't hurt that, as Morton says, he got the papers for a "bargain price."
And the Buffett buying spree may just be beginning. He told the World-Herald in an interview that he's likely to purchase more newspapers, and portrayed himself as just the man for sellers who care about their papers.
"I wouldn't be surprised if, over time, more things come up," he said. "Any time we can add properties we like, to management we like, at a price we like, we're ready to go."
And, he emphasized, he's the ideal buyer for sellers who are concerned about the futures of their papers. "If they care about the paper, they know it's going to a place where it's going to be permanent," he said.
Buffett's interest in adding papers to his portfolio represents a dramatic reversal of his stance only three years ago, when he warned darkly that newspapers faced years of "unending losses" and said he wouldn't acquire most of them "at any price." And it is certainly a psychological boost for a reeling industry that desperately needs one.
As you may have heard, newspapers have been battered by the onset of the digital era. Circulation and profits have plummeted as readers and advertisers defected to the Internet. Yet it's important to remember that they are not dead yet. While the sky-high profits of the past are gone forever, the industry is still profitable. While its average profit margin of 10 percent is half what it was a decade ago, some industries don't reach that level in the best of times.
Clearly, newspaper companies have paid a steep price for their slow response to the digital revolution. They have much work to do in converting themselves into full-fledged multiplatform operations that deliver news wherever and however people want it.
But Buffett's bet is a reminder that the game isn't over yet.