Dear Mr. Buffett,
I am a 31-year subscriber to my hometown newspaper, the News & Record, which your company, Berkshire-Hathaway, owns. The editor-publisher of the paper, Jeff Gauger, resigned yesterday. This gives you a golden opportunity before it is too late to do a solid for newspapers around the country. No, it’s more than a solid and it’s for more than newspapers. You can throw a lifeline to news consumers everywhere.
In 2012, you said that you love newspapers. I’m hoping that remains true.
You wrote in your annual letter to shareholders: “Charlie and I believe that papers delivering comprehensive and reliable information to tightly-bound communities and having a sensible Internet strategy will remain viable for a long time. We do not believe that success will come from cutting either the news content or frequency of publication. Indeed, skimpy news coverage will almost certainly lead to skimpy readership. …Our goal is to keep our papers loaded with content of interest to our readers and to be paid appropriately by those who find us useful, whether the product they view is in their hands or on the Internet.”
I love that. Right now, your operation here isn’t coming close to your goal. It is cutting staff and page count, reduced subscriber services, and watched readership decline across the region. The paper isn’t serving its readership or contributing what it should to the health of democracy. It isn’t doing what you pledged to shareholders.
So, this is your opportunity: Hire a publisher who is empowered to lead the News & Record into the future rather than one trying to hold onto the past. Use the N&R to try new approaches to news and revenue generation. Adopt the idea that successes by the N&R could be tried in some of the other dozens of newspapers your company owns. And make this not about the printed product, but about how news companies can generate and distribute news and information that serves the community.
My advice for his or her first moves to include:
>>>>Refocus the newspaper’s mission: Right now it seems to be attempting to be intensely local. It’s not a bad mission; it’s one I argued for some years ago. But it isn’t working the way it is being executed. The staff is too small to handle an area this large. In truth, it’s not in the readership’s DNA to want a newspaper that is intensely local to the detriment of everything else. Most of the newspaper’s readership lived in a time in which newspapers were more comprehensive and displayed big national stories on the front page alongside big local stories. Seeing local — no matter how unimportant — trump bigger national stories proves only that the editors can follow a policy but not their own news judgment. It’s not what your readership wants.
>>>>Conduct market research to find out more about why people get the paper…and why people don’t. That would help drive the refocus on the mission. Me, I would emphasize investigative reporting on stories that truly make a difference in people’s lives. Too often the project reporting that gets done doesn’t. Case in point: This week the paper is publishing an eight-part series on a murder that occurred four years ago in a county outside the newspaper’s home county. It’s still unclear to me why the paper has spent the time and multiple pages telling this story.
Instead, focus on stories change readers’ lives for the better or that will right wrongs in the system…those are the stories that make readers notice. Those are the stories readers talk about. And those are the stories that a news organization can point to with pride. (If you’re going down, go out with your head held high.) Consider and adopt – or adapt – all of the possibilities suggested by Jeff Jarvis on service journalism.
>>>>Decide that it’s time to overhaul the paper’s digital presence. Like many newspaper websites, yours is terrible. It’s hard to navigate, it loads slowly and ads are all over the place. Throughout the day, the content is heavily crime-related. I assume there is data that shows that that brings traffic. It adds little value, though. Plus, you do know that there is evidence suggesting that most people are not going to your home page, at all, right? Your future customer finds the news on his and her phone, either on an app, on social media or from a newsletter like the Skimm. Evaluate your presence on those platforms and you’ll find opportunities galore.
Let the editor and his lieutenants figure these things out. The publisher and her ad staff can figure out how to reinvent the revenue side. That’s well outside my scope.
This is just the beginning. I have other ideas, but I’m no expert. You have smart people working there. There are many smart people who can help. Bring them in. Heck, start with Steve Buttry. He wrote this about the Boston Globe, and it’s a good a starting place for ideas and inspiration as any.
It will cost some money. You have it. In the scheme of Berkshire Hathaway’s holdings, it will be negligible. But it has the potential to boost the earnings of your newspapers and fulfill your stated goal.
Full disclosure: I was the editor of the paper for 13 years and worked there for 27. I contributed to the smaller staff by laying off more than my fair share of good reporters. I tried various strategies to build readership. I missed opportunities to pursue great investigative projects. I had my chances and didn’t make the most of them.
Let me close by quoting you back to you, from that same 2012 letter: “And people will seek their news – what’s important to them – from whatever sources provide the best combination of immediacy, ease of access, reliability, comprehensiveness and low cost.”
You are exactly right. You have the opportunity right now to put the force of your organization behind that statement and shape the future of journalism. I hope you will.
P.S. You might enjoy the slogan below from the front page of the 1939 Greensboro Daily News, a predecessor of the News & Record. “Adequate News Coverage In All Sections Of The State.”