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Archive for February, 2016

There is no Santa Claus. Many people in the news business know that as a literal fact, but they still believe there may be a kind of Santa Claus who will step into their lives. If they did not, we would not have stories such as this, from Nieman Lab this time, wondering what in the world Warren Buffett (or replace his name with your favorite media-owning billionaire) has in mind for his newspaper(s). The article by Joshua Benton wonders what might be read into the absence of tea leaves about newspapers in Buffett’s most recent letter to shareholders.

I’ll tell you what: Nothing.

In 2013, shortly after getting a new job after being laid off from Media General in the wake of Buffett’s purchase of that company’s newspaper assets, I was called by a reporter (perhaps it was Reuters, but I don’t recall for sure) who was working on a story about what Buffett was really after. I told her that from what I saw from the time of the purchase announcement in May 2012 through the transition period until the final cuts that November, you had to take Buffett at his public word — that he thought that prudent, conservative management would keep the papers viable and profitable for some time, but that he had no plans to experiment or try anything that would surprise people.

So far, Buffett’s company has been completely consistent on its management of the company’s newspapers, which is to say conventional. The managers are budget-minded. Papers have to make their “numbers,” above all. Everything has been consistent with what I saw in my brief exposure to that management structure.

So why the never-ending stream of stories wondering what lies over the rainbow, or whether there is a rainbow?

Because people thought Buffett was Santa Claus.

People in news don’t often think of news as a business. It’s a calling. It’s not a way to make money. People take pride that it doesn’t pay well, as people do when they get great satisfaction from a job that doesn’t pay well. It’s a mission. That makes it personal, to a great extent. But Warren Buffett, like most business owners, approaches his business as a business. This is business, but the news people are taking it very, very personal.

Please stop it, all of you. To the extent that Jeff Bezos or other billionaire-come-latelys to the business are trying new things or talking about new models, please, by all means, spread the word. New ideas need consideration. But please stop waiting for secret plans on how to get out of the quagmire from anyone who steps in and does not enunciate any plans that differ from what you already know or, as in the case of Orange County, require a reality other than the one you know.

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King for a day, or so

As I stooped over this morning, a plastic scoop in my hand and the smell of cat pee and poop rising from the litter box in front of me, I couldn’t help but think this was no job for a king.

And that’s what they called me less than 48 hours earlier – king.

I blame them.

They gave me what folks call “the big head.”

When I decided a few weeks ago to enter the Caldwell County Rotary Club’s annual chili cookoff, it had been partly just to get it out of my system. I love to cook chili, I have been to over a dozen chili cookoffs, from small affairs like Rotary’s to large events alongside Richmond International Raceway sponsored by a rock station and drawing professional teams, and I always thought my own chili stacked up relatively well. Finally, when Rotary sent out its cookoff entry deadline, I kept reading over it and I decided I should put up or shut up. Enter that chili or stop humble-bragging about it.

There were 12 other entries in Rotary’s cookoff. I stuck around to watch the judging, and as the minutes ticked by I noticed that the four judges seemed to keep going back for second or third tastes from other pots, but not mine.

After Rotary member Charles Beck told the judges that their time was up and they needed to make a decision, the judges huddled at their table, whispered a few things, and I prepared for disappointment. Then they straightened and looked at Beck, and I heard them say the number assigned to my pot of chili. My chili won.

It felt pretty good. It was my first-ever cookoff, and I joked that I ought to never enter another cookoff so I could say I am undefeated in chili cookoffs.

But people kept coming up to shake my hand. “What’s your secret?” I was asked under a spotlight on the stage. Praise washed over me, and it felt good.

My wife texted me, “Congratulations, chili king!”

Later that day at work, my boss came out of her office as I walked past. She smiled broadly and said, “There’s the chili king!”

“Chili king.” It had a nice ring. I called my mom and left a message starting, “This is the Chili King of Caldwell County …”

I got home before my wife. When I saw her walking to the door, I opened it to greet her and bellowed, “BOW BEFORE YOUR CHILI KING!”

She gave a half-smile, stepped slightly to one side and said, “’kay.” But she didn’t bow. Not even a curtsy.

It all went downhill from there, and at the bottom of the hill was a litter box.

Mel Brooks was right, “It’s good to be the king.” But it doesn’t last long.

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