Can Warren Buffett Save America's Newspapers?
Last week, The Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans announced that it was succumbing to the economic realities of the new media age and reducing its print frequency from seven days a week to three. Yet just as that announcement was being made, Warren Buffett disclosed that he was buying 26 more dailies to add to the ones he already owns. Community-minded papers have a "good future," he proclaimed. More purchases are expected.
So can an obscenely rich old liberal who admits to holding "strong political views" save an industry of underpaid liberals with strong political biases? They wish.
Unfortunately, Buffett isn't joining their cause so much as capitalizing on their misfortune. He's scavenging the remainders, acquiring at bargain prices small and mid-sized papers that still offer a nice return for his investors with the promise of a profitable salvage when things finally do go south in a few years. In other words, he's just what newspapers don't need right now: another corporate profit-taker.
After waxing nostalgic about his own paperboy days, Buffett explained his purported buying philosophy in a letter to his editors and publishers:
We will favor towns and cities with a strong sense of community, comparable to the 26 in which we will soon operate. If a citizenry cares little about its community, it will eventually care little about its newspaper. In a very general way, strong interest in community affairs varies inversely with population size and directly with the number of years a community's population has been in residence.
That's odd gibberish coming from an Obama liberal who supports the ideas and policies that have deliberately and relentlessly undermined community in America. Like his buddy Bill Gates, this white, privileged tycoon loves to talk about "social justice," the left's codewords for racial and ethnic resentment and discontent. He's also become a star player in Obama's tax-the-rich class warfare. Meanwhile, his son is an activist for immigration "reform," illegal immigration being such a stabilizer of populations.
Buffett didn't reveal how he determines which cities are community-minded enough to support newspapers and which aren't, nor did he explain how civic mindedness protects a newspaper from the digital revolution. More likely, these towns of his are just a little behind-the-media curve. When they finally catch up, and they will, the citizenry may be surprised to learn how uncivic investors can be when the money's gone.
"It's your job to make your paper indispensable to anyone who cares about what is going on in your city or town," wrote Buffett, rallying his troops, much as George Pickett probably rallied his: "All you have to do, men, is climb up that little ridge over there." Buffett didn't reveal what he thought his journalists had been doing before he came along and told them what their job was.
Which brings us to a uncomfortable topic for mainstream journalists: themselves. The energy and inspiration behind new media innovations, the force driving newspapers into obsolescence, comes primarily from aggressive (mostly, sorry, white) males, the same kind of men who founded the newspaper industry and steered it through its glory years. Their ethos has left the newsroom, which today is a PC-obsessed, risk-adverse workplace controlled by corporate bureaucrats. Corporatism has smothered the industry's creativity, allowed a stifling conformism to overtake its news content and crippled its ability to invent its way into the future. Buffett isn't going to change that environment one bit.
Nor is he going to promote competition, which the mainstream media desperately need but viciously oppose. He's a staunch supporter of media monopolies. The No. 1 reason newspapers fail, he writes in his letter, is competing newspapers, though the current failure of this monopolistic industry directly refutes that.
The one concrete piece of advice Buffet did advance to his publishers was this: newspapers must "rethink" the practice of providing free content on the internet. Actually, they've been rethinking that for a decade and can't figure it out, which is why he just bought 26 dailies on the cheap. Buffett touts his company's deep pockets, but if it were a question of money, the matter would have been resolved long ago.
Buffett's an old man (81). His fortune may buy these papers some time, as it may him. But time is running out, and all the money in the world can't buy either one of them a future.