— When billionaire investor Warren Buffett started buying and investing in newspapers, the blogosphere went wild all claiming they were smarter, more insightful and had a clearer vision of what lies ahead for newspapers – doom.
Proponents of online news warned that if we didn’t capitulate on things such as offering free news, move to a digital-only offering and cut back on paper, we risk obsolescence in readership.
Buffett defended his decision by saying he has no interest in the Los Angeles Times or the Chicago Tribune. “It’s really hard in L.A. to have a sense of community. They probably don’t care that much about the city council, and don’t live in the same parish their parents did. They’re not interested in high school basketball.”
And that’s the crux of why this debate has been misguided.
Attempts by national outfits to capture the secret of local news have continued to miss the mark. AOL’s Patch threw a lot of money to establish local online news outlets nationwide to secure just a mere 1 percent of local advertising and have so far failed in that objective.
Google recently announced it is trying yet again to get local advertising into its revenue stream. Larger newspapers tried to act more national than regional, emulating USA Today, which now is suffering severe advertising losses.
The trouble with all the prognostications being leveled at today’s newspaper environment is the focus is on the major to large metropolitan areas that, indeed, are having trouble, especially those with a crushing debt load from earlier expansions. It’s not necessarily because of readership loss but because they still count on national advertising, which has been fleeing to the online market.
Plus, classified has shifted to free sites such as Craigslist, thereby depleting yet another revenue stream. (We also have not been immune to these losses, but the amount of pain inflicted was not to the degree suffered by the larger news organizations.)
There have been attempts to recoup some of the losses by cutting back on print circulation and shift to online, as was done in Detroit, which went to three days. And the New Orleans Times-Picayune just recently announced the same decision to rely more heavily on online presentation. There is a tacit understanding that such a shift will not be able to command the same revenue stream, so cutbacks will be severe, potentially affecting news coverage.
This isn’t to say digital news shouldn’t be part of the mix. While our Sunday circulation is growing, we also have the most robust online news service in the region. We are successful at both ventures because we treat both products differently to satisfy the needs of our readers. Our advertisers know audiences consume news differently and that their consumer messages work with newspapers, both in print and online.
But our continued success isn’t dependent on what type of medium we use but rather on our commitment to our communities. We are invested in their success by covering the news that is relevant to them — news that affects them in their hometowns. We are part of the community — we shop at the same stores, go to the same churches and help with the same charitable causes. Our writers continuously present vibrant portraits of the people who make up our communities whether they be politicians, leaders or everyday people who have an interesting story to tell. And, most importantly, we take our watchdog function seriously as a necessary part of a vibrant democracy.
The intensity of our readership becomes very real when we may miss delivery to a household and are informed with some passion that we just ruined the habit, the routine of a reader. It is through both advertising and readership support that we can continue to perform that vital role and for that we are very grateful.
Buffett is rolling the dice to help newspapers do what they should do well — cover their communities like it was their own backyard and present it in whatever medium the readers want — digital, paper, magazines or sky writing if it comes to that.
If newspapers continue to honor that obligation, they will have a rich future ahead. Using that formula, we’re planning on being here another 125 years.