I have trouble figuring out Warren Buffett’s fixation with newspapers. He didn’t get to be a billionaire by being a sentimental, soft-headed fool, but in his statements about newspapers I often wonder whether it’s that he didn’t know what the newspaper economic model was when he started buying them, or (on the optimistic side of me) that he knew what it was and wants to provide a bridge to move the industry to a new model.
His recent message to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders does nothing to lessen my puzzlement.
My skepticism of his understanding has stemmed from his repeated insistence that paywalls are necessary, that it’s a poor business model to give away what it costs money to produce. That underpinned my questioning whether he understood that newspapers HAVE ALWAYS GIVEN AWAY WHAT THEY PRODUCE. The price you pay to buy a copy of a newspaper doesn’t come close to the actual per-unit cost of producing a newspaper. Advertising has always paid the freight. Newspapers have been willing to essentially give their product away for a price that, for all intents and purposes, is close to free in order to court more advertisers.
But in his recent message to shareholders, Buffett made clear he understood this:
“Indeed, your paper contained so much you wanted to learn that you received your money’s worth, even if only a small number of its pages spoke to your specific interests. Better yet, advertisers typically paid almost all of the product’s cost, and readers rode their coattails.
“Additionally, the ads themselves delivered information of vital interest to hordes of readers, in effect providing even more ‘news.’ Editors would cringe at the thought, but for many readers learning what jobs or apartments were available, what supermarkets were carrying which weekend specials, or what movies were showing where and when was far more important than the views expressed on the editorial page.
“In turn, the local paper was indispensable to advertisers. If Sears or Safeway built stores in Omaha, they required a ‘megaphone’ to tell the city’s residents why their stores should be visited today. Indeed, big department stores and grocers vied to outshout their competition with multi-page spreads, knowing that the goods they advertised would fly off the shelves. With no other megaphone remotely comparable to that of the newspaper, ads sold themselves.
“As long as a newspaper was the only one in its community, its profits were certain to be extraordinary; whether it was managed well or poorly made little difference.”
The advertising itself “delivered information of vital interest to hordes of readers.” Advertising is free content, then, so it costs nothing to create; in fact someone is paying you to print something that helps you draw readers, so giving away the product in that case makes sense. OK, so maybe he knows the history after all.
He also knows the recent history:
“Now the world has changed. Stock market quotes and the details of national sports events are old news long before the presses begin to roll. The Internet offers extensive information about both available jobs and homes. Television bombards viewers with political, national and international news. In one area of interest after another, newspapers have therefore lost their ‘primacy.’ And, as their audiences have fallen, so has advertising. (Revenues from ‘help wanted’ classified ads – long a huge source of income for newspapers – have plunged more than 90% in the past 12 years.)”
So at this point, we know he knows the traditional business model is in the tank. And?
“Newspapers continue to reign supreme, however, in the delivery of local news.”
All right, he wants to change the model from one in which newspapers make their money by selling their audience to advertisers to one in which the newspapers actually do what journalists have always pretended was the real business: selling the news to the audience.
And he has said publicly that he wants his newspapers to be so good that a person will “get the shakes” if he misses his daily paper.
That would be one humdinger of a newspaper.
But I don’t see the real evidence of his belief in that model. Where have salaries increased so he can attract the kind of creative minds that would induce withdrawal symptoms? Where has staff been increased, other than papers that were allowed, now that they didn’t have to feed a parent company’s debt payments, to fill long-vacant positions? Point me to a paper where there is movement toward addictive content.
Where has the price of the daily paper increased to reflect this valuable content that is available nowhere else? Though perhaps you could argue that holding the price steady while losing advertising — which Buffett himself described as valuable content that often drew readers on its own — could be a form of increasing prices. Your paper still costs 75 cents or a dollar a day, even though it is half the size it used to be.
The American newspaper industry conditioned the public to believe for more than 100 years that content was very nearly free because, with advertising paying the bills, it could afford to. Buffett now proposes to make people pay for that content. Bravo. I wish that had been the case for decades. I wish, in fact, that publishers had asked readers whether they would rather pay more than see some of their favorite features and sports beats hacked in order to keep the price of a daily paper from rising when advertising went off the cliff in the late 2000s.
But what is the plan for making Buffett’s vision work? Buffett’s statement to shareholders holds up the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette as “the main exemplar for local newspapers” for having gone early to a hard paywall, because of which the paper “has retained its circulation far better than any other large paper in the country.” True. But it is still losing advertising, just as everyone else has, and has had to hike its price. And predictions are that, paywalls or no, advertising will continue to decline.
Paywalls alone, charging something similar to a print subscription, can’t save newspapers if advertising continues to fall. So, assuming that at some point everyone will have to pay more, what is the ultimate price point at which Buffett thinks his papers can be self-sustaining? Does Buffett think people will pay $3 a day for a newspaper in Danville, Va., or Waco, Texas, or Enterprise, Ala.? The industry’s longtime executives obviously think not, or they would have hiked prices much faster and sooner. Would Advance have cut its days of production in New Orleans rather than raise the price if company officials thought a price hike would achieve the same ends? I hope not, but I can’t rule it out — newspaper executives don’t inspire confidence in their ability to game out the various scenarios.
Buffett obviously thinks that in the long run, the day-cutting strategy in New Orleans and other places will lose:
“… the less-than-daily publication that is now being tried in some large towns or cities – while it may improve profits in the short term – seems certain to diminish the papers’ relevance over time. 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.”
Well, fine, you’ll produce lots of interesting stuff and people will pay for it. … But how much do you think they will be willing to pay? Just for what you produce right now, since you are not hiring a bunch more people, like the Orange County Register, in an attempt to bring readers back?
If you believe in that strategy, that content equals readers, why not actually implement it?
Reducing daily print publication “seems certain to diminish the papers’ relevance”? No, faster daily personal schedules plus TV, radio and the Internet did that already. Print circulation had been in decline before the very first news website ever was created. “Local news” will bring them back? Define “local.”
Some newspaper executives seem to think that if you jam a paper full of press releases and community announcements, that’s “local content,” and people will value it. I think not. I think people will read it and see that it’s all badly written, fluffy crap, and they will resent paying for it, or being asked to pay for it.
Here’s my radical proposal: The kind of people who are willing to pay for something to read enjoy reading. And I don’t mean they enjoy seeing random printed words on a page. They want to READ. They want writing that engages the mind and the imagination. That the writing happens to be factual and about their neighbors and community only makes it more engaging.
And you can’t get that from writers paid slightly more than migrant field hands are paid, which still is the going wage in some newspapers (including some of Buffett’s).
The future may yet see Buffett’s team roll out an aggressive, content-building strategy tied to a price-raising strategy that includes pay that rewards the best and brightest content-creators, so that the papers all are truly primarily selling content. That’s not happening yet, no one has proposed a path for getting there, and if it weren’t Warren Buffett making the pitch, I wonder how many people would buy what he’s selling his shareholders.
Full disclosure: In November I was laid off by Warren Buffett’s World Media Enterprises. I have made my arguments about pricing, pay and paywalls in the new news environment since long before that.
UPDATE 3/5/13: Yet another interview in which Buffett has to answer no hard questions at all. Buffett says, “It’s almost unnatural how much I love newspapers.” Yes, it is, almost as unnatural as how seemingly all journalists see nothing at all worth questioning about his company’s stewardship and plans, or lack thereof, for what he has bought.