When it comes to finding fans of the newspaper business, financier Warren Buffett has always been a bit of an odd choice. After all, he is a billionaire known primarily for his interest in making money, not journalism.
At the same time, however, he is also a folksy, avuncular old man, and so media companies have clung to his faith in newspapers like a life preserver. But they might want to reconsider that stance given what the “Oracle of Omaha” had to say recently about the newspaper business.
In an interview with CNBC on Monday, Buffett said he believes the only papers that are “assured” of a long life are probably the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and possibly the Washington Post.
“If you look, there are 1,300 daily newspapers left,” Buffett said. “There were 1,700 or 1,800 not too long ago. Now, you’ve got the internet. Aside from the ones I mentioned, [most of them] haven’t figured out a way to make the digital model complement the print model.”
This comment is interesting for reasons other than just that Buffett is one of the world’s richest men. Through his holding company Berkshire Hathaway, he is also a large investor in newspapers, particularly small weeklies, as well as some larger titles like the Buffalo News.
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Buffett acquired most of his newspapers (he currently owns about 31 of them) by buying a company called Media General in 2012 for $142 million, and made bullish comments about local papers and the role they play in small towns.
“Newspapers continue to reign supreme in the delivery of local news,” he said at the time, in comments that many newspaper owners and editors celebrated. “If you want to know what’s going on in your town—whether the news is about the mayor or taxes or high school football—there is no substitute for a local newspaper that is doing its job.”
As the Nieman Journalism Lab has pointed out, however, Buffett has barely mentioned his newspaper holdings in his hugely popular annual letter to shareholders for the past several years, except to say last year that “circulation of our print newspapers will continue to fall, a certainty we allowed for when purchasing them.”
In his latest letter, which came out on February 25th, the word “newspaper” only appears once, and that’s when he is describing one of his folksy rituals—known as the “Newspaper Tossing Challenge”—in which Buffett (a former newspaper delivery boy) competes with shareholders to see who can throw a folded newspaper onto a suburban porch from 35 feet away.
In effect, Buffett appears to own newspapers not because he believes they have a future, but because he believes that they can produce cash flow—albeit declining amounts—while they are dying, and that this can be used for other investments. Berkshire Hathaway owns a number of investments of this kind, like Dairy Queen and See’s Candies.
And why does Buffett believe that the New York Times and Wall Street Journal can survive? Because they have “developed an online presence that people will pay for.” In other words, they have a digital subscription model that can offset some of the decline in print.
What Buffett doesn’t say is that even digital subscriptions have not kept the Journal and the Times from having to make cuts to their newsrooms. The Journal has laid off staff around the world over the past few months, and the Times is widely expected to see layoffs soon.
Even a flood of new subscribers to the Times, apparently driven by dissatisfaction with Donald Trump, is not filling the gap left by the ongoing slide in print revenue.
And what about the thousands of other smaller newspapers without a global brand as powerful as the Times or the Journal, and without enough subscribers to offset the plunge in print advertising? Buffett’s view appears to be that most of them are doomed—including, apparently, some of the ones he owns.