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.