Fat cats are buying newspapers. Should journalists rejoice? Not yet. The nabobs’ widely varying strategies for turning around their papers have not yet been tested.
Warren Buffett, the multibillionaire wizard of Omaha, has his company, Berkshire Hathaway, buying newspapers, which he once said were dinosaurs. Jeff Bezos, the Amazon.com founder who is worth $28 billion, bought the Washington Post. Billionaire John Henry bought the Boston Globe.
Billionaire Tom Gores’s Platinum Equity bought the Union-Tribune but quickly abandoned ambitious plans to expand a newspaper empire and sold the U-T to multimillionaire Papa Doug Manchester, who then picked up the North County Times to create a monopoly in county daily newspapers. The U-T has just bought eight county weeklies and proclaimed it will concentrate on “hyperlocal” or community-dominant news.
Aaron Kushner, Eric Spitz, and well-heeled silent partners bought the Orange County Register and shocked the industry by doubling its reporting staff. Then the entrepreneurs launched a new paper in Long Beach and recently bought the Riverside Press-Enterprise.
However, these nabobs are buying papers cheap. Buffett told Berkshire shareholders that cash earnings from papers will recede over time but the investments should pay off because of the low prices he paid. He is buying medium- and small-sized papers.
Bezos paid a low price for the Post and admits newspapers are a “challenged business.” His strategy for turning around that paper is not yet clear. Henry paid only $70 million for the Globe. The print editions of Manchester’s U-T are losing circulation alarmingly, but the real estate mogul expects to make money on electronic platforms. Kushner is betting big that presenting the news intelligently — most importantly, in print editions — will pay off. Skepticism abounds.
As the Pew Research Center’s “State of the News Media 2013” points out, there are positives in the industry. Stocks of several media companies have gone up stoutly, and sellers of newspapers are getting better prices than they formerly did. About one-third of newspapers are setting up so-called paywalls — that is, preventing internet users from accessing articles without shelling out money. Thus far, this seems to be working well, says Pew, particularly at nationally distributed papers with special audiences, such as the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. However, other dailies are now backing away from paywalls.
Unfortunately, according to Pew data, the bad news outweighs the good. Print advertising fell 8.5 percent last year — the sixth straight year of declines. Digital advertising, which is now only 15 percent of total newspaper ad revenue, has grown weakly the past two years “and does not come close to covering print ad losses,” says Pew.
Newspapers have snagged readers on mobile devices such as smartphones, but advertising hasn’t come through. Papers such as the U-T boast about the many platforms they operate on, but as Pew points out, those platforms require a lot of money and frequent updates.
Nationally, the number of newsroom employees has dropped 30 percent since the year 2000. And Buffett warns, “Skimpy news coverage will almost certainly lead to skimpy readership.”
Newspapers’ profits are pulled down by high pension obligations. When Henry and Buffett bought papers recently, they did not assume pension obligations. Those obligations remained with the papers’ sellers.
There is little doubt that medium- and small-sized papers are doing better financially than the big metro dailies that have more online competition. That’s why Buffett, for the most part, wants the smaller papers.
But there is another side to that coin, too. In Fairport, New York, a suburb of Rochester, a company named GateHouse Media specializes in small- and medium-sized newspapers hyperlocal in the extreme. In fact, when the Union-Tribune was run by the Copley family, GateHouse paid more than $380 million for money-losing Copley papers in Illinois and Ohio. It was the smartest move Copley management ever made but only one of many dumb moves GateHouse made.
Backed by a onetime Wall Street darling, Fortress Investment Group, which owns almost 40 percent of its stock, GateHouse went out and gobbled up small- and medium-sized newspapers around the country. It now has 408 publications, mostly weeklies. The company is proud that its losses have dropped from $673 million in 2008 to $29.8 million last year.
It piled up massive debt to buy all those papers. At the end of September, it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy with three times as many liabilities as assets. The chief executive officer declared that the bankruptcy was “not a reflection of any operational difficulties” at the company. Huh? The stock closed Monday at 4 cents a share.
Some optimists think that the paywall is newspapers’ savior. Gannett, the largest newspaper chain, has moved to the paywall. Ditto for newspapers belonging to McClatchy and Lee Enterprises. The New York Times is now getting more revenue from circulation than advertising. Formerly, newspapers counted on getting 80 percent of revenues from ads and 20 percent from circulation. But for the industry, 85 percent of ad revenues come from the print product, which is fading.
Some papers believe they can gain more online ad revenue by knocking down paywalls. In August, the San Francisco Chronicle dropped its paywall strategy after only four months. In October, the Dallas Morning News, one of the first regional papers to erect a paywall, junked it. An executive conceded that selling content had not created a “massive groundswell” of digital revenue.
Wall Street remains unimpressed with the future of the newspaper business. For example, McClatchy Co. has stuck to newspapers, both print and digital. The stock was selling above $50 until it bought Knight Ridder in 2006. McClatchy stock got below 50 cents in 2009 and Monday closed at $2.86.
On the other hand, Gannett keeps diversifying widely into TV. The stock got below $2 in 2009, when the future of newspapers looked the bleakest. After a rush into TV, its stock jumped and closed Monday at $28.04.