The sale of the News & Record, a newspaper I love, to Berkshire Hathaway is a good thing — a good thing for Greensboro and a good thing for my friends still at the paper.
I worked at the News & Record for 27 years. I learned how to be a boss there and met some of the best friends I’ve ever had there. Fourteen months ago, I retired as editor from the paper for a number of reasons. I had grown weary of the constant cost-cutting and longed to do something more fulfilling. I realized that with the challenges ahead of the paper, it was time for someone else to take the wheel.
Here’s why I think the sale is good:
* Landmark Communications — it doesn’t have that name any longer, but it is still how I know it — has been in the process of dissolving itself. It has been trying to sell all of its properties for several years. Most of the corporate staff is gone, along with the long-term planning and people-development focus. (I don’t blame the Batten family for that. The Battens have been good stewards for many years. Frank Batten Jr., like me, wants to do something else; he deserves that.) Consequently, the company has not had a strong, eyes-ahead plan for the future. Berkshire Hathaway, however, is buying newspapers because it sees a future in them. That is a big change for the local company.
* Related to that, the N&R hasn’t spent much time with serious planning for the future. The idea was that the paper would be sold soon enough so long-term planning would be wasted time. Who knows what direction in which a new buyer would want to move? The result, of course, is getting to the end of each quarter meeting budget. That’s OK for the short term, but you won’t build a future that way.
* Money was tight when it came to spending for long-term infrastructure needs. The website, which is not exactly a smashing success, was done in-house on the cheap. A publishing system upgrade last year continues to act so erratically that the staff wonders some nights if the paper will even come out. And that is just in the newsroom. I am sure that the machine heavy production department has similar issues.
* A change in ownership will inject — I hope — a new sense of vision and forward thinking at the paper. Because of the years of uncertainty awaiting a sale, the leadership has been conservative, and I was an active part of that. With the question of ownership resolved, the leaders can move ahead with, presumably, new energy, focus and resolve. That can’t be anything but good.
I don’t know much about BH-owned newspapers. Because the Winston-Salem Journal is also owned by BH, I suspect that some consolidation will come next. I regret that because it usually means layoffs and inefficiencies. (If the company consolidates the two newspapers, I rescind everything I’m writing here. That would be a stupid, stupid move.)
Will more money be put into the property? I don’t know. (Perhaps less money will be taken out!) Will the caliber of journalism improve? I hope so. Here’s a quote from a Howard Kurtz column about Buffett last year: “Nor does (Buffett) believe in the slash-and-strip-the-assets approach of some other out-of-town landlords. ‘I think it’s crazy to shrink the news hole. You’re selling information.'”
And from the New York Times: “For his new employees, the best indicator of what Mr. Buffett may do is what he has done with The Buffalo News. Interviews with more than a dozen current and former editors paint a picture of a profitable paper that is run with little involvement from its owner. Some journalists say that the owner will hold out as long as possible to buy the latest printing presses and that they wish the paper dedicated more resources to the highly ambitious journalism that wins the biggest awards.
But many workers agree that the owner does not skimp on sending reporters to town meetings or on enterprising local journalism, which is in line with Mr. Buffett’s belief in an intense local focus for papers.”
It probably means a paywall on the website, but I think that was coming anyway.
These are quick thoughts. I wasn’t at any staff meeting at the paper and only know what I know from the news release. Am I being optimistic? Absolutely. But I think the evidence points that way.
Update: A friend and former co-worker writes via Facebook: “I started working at my hometown paper about a year ago. At the time, it was owned by Media General. Two weeks later, MG put its papers up for sale. BH bought them in May. So far, one person from our paper was laid off – office manager. BH is updating our computers, phones, etc. MG ignored them way too long. BH is also pushing a strong social media presence (also long ignored). In the past, our fortune was tied to our newspaper group – if one paper did well, but the rest did not, the entire group suffered. With BH, if a paper does well, it reaps the rewards. If not, then no. I think that pushes you to work harder. I am happy to see the N&R join the fold! So far, I have no complaints. We have been pretty much left alone.”
Update 2: From another Facebook friend: “I was hired by the WS Journal in January of this year. It was right when the entire building was being converted from Media General over to BH….new phones, computers, Journal is actually hiring key spots now cause they have a future vision. They are pushing a heavy commitment to digital media, big plans for livestreaming, social media, etc. Its a new way of thinking about reporting the news. The building here is excited about it. I owe my new job to Warren Buffett buying the Journal and giving them a fresh leash. And Omaha basically stays out of day to day operations. You can tell around the building that everyone seems energized and ready to go to work….good feeling to have…”