Warren Buffett, the sage of Omaha, has always said that the key to the financial success of a daily newspaper is to give readers more rather than less. The Newhouse family's Advance Publications is trying another tack – giving readers less, less often.
We'll learn which strategy works best in the long run, but there is no doubt which one best serves the public weal. I'd rather be a newspaper reader in Buffalo, where Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway has owned the News since 1977, or in one of the other 26 cities where his company has recently bought newspapers, than in any of the cities in Louisiana, Alabama and Michigan where Advance is retreating from
When the Buffalo News became profitable in 1983, a year after the rival Courier-Express went under, Buffett made clear in his annual letter to shareholders why his paper had prevailed and why its circulation coverage of its home market was first among the 100 largest papers on weekdays and nearly so on Sunday. "The News lives up to its name – it delivers a very unusual amount of news," he wrote. "During l983, our news hole..amounted to 50% of the newspaper's content."
This large newshole, he pointed out, meant that the News gave readers at least 25 percent more news than newspapers with more typical newsholes of 35 to 40 percent. I checked with Margaret Sullivan, who was editor of the News until becoming the New York Times' public editor on September 1, and she said nothing had changed regarding newshole percentage and household coverage.
Buffett last spring sent a letter to the staffs of the newspapers Berkshire Hathaway owns or was purchasing, and his message was vastly reassuring. "Berkshire buys for keeps... Though the economics of the business have drastically changed since our purchase of The Buffalo News, I believe newspapers that intensively cover their communities will have a good future. It's your job to make your paper indispensable to anyone who cares about what is going on in your city or town. That will mean both maintaining your news hole – a newspaper that reduces its coverage of the news important to its community is certain to reduce its readership as well – and thoroughly covering all aspects of area life."
The financial impetus behind Advance's strategy is obvious. It's no secret that most dailies lose money on some days of the week, when advertising is thin. Monday is particularly tough and, depending on the market, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday can also be losers or at best break-even. Wednesday's papers usually are fat with grocery advertisements, Friday's with entertainment and department-store promotions and Sunday's papers attract copious spending from all retailers, especially automobile dealers.
Most dailies have continued to publish on money-losing days because, well, it's called public service. It also helps preserve the habit of reading a daily newspaper. Cutting back New Orleans' Times-Picayune to publishing only on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, as Advance plans to do at the end of September, will undermine that daily habit. Advance is similarly cutting back at its Alabama newspapers in Birmingham, Mobile and Huntsville, and earlier did so at its papers in Michigan. The company says it is adapting to a transformed media world and is evolving into a digital-first news organization.
The risks in any dramatic move lie in the unintended consequences. One that emerged from the civic outrage in New Orleans was a partnership among the University of New Orleans, its National Public Radio affiliate and NewOrleansReporter.org, a new creation of the civic organization Greater New Orleans. (Disclosure: I was retained briefly by Greater New Orleans to advise on appropriate responses to Advance's plans). The goal is to fund a well-staffed local online newsroom to provide daily coverage of New Orleans.
The problem with any online effort in New Orleans, including the one that Advance says will be expanded by the Times-Picayune, is that many residents don't have high-speed Internet access at home. Still, Advance may have helped create a significant news competitor where none existed before. In addition, the Advocate in Baton Rouge, 80 miles away, is launching a New Orleans edition.
The experience of other newspapers that have cut back distribution is not encouraging. In Detroit, the Free Press and the News saw their combined circulations drop sharply – by 20 percent weekdays and 11 percent Sunday – after they reduced home delivery to three days a week in 2009.
Clearly, Advance is taking a big risk with the changes at its newspapers, with as yet unknown consequences except for all those employees whose lives have been upended. I'm sure they envy those whose newspapers wound up being owned by Berkshire Hathaway.