Carl Ramey: Unlikely champion of news


Published: Sunday, March 24, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 21, 2013 at 11:53 p.m.

Like a sudden glimpse of sun on an overcast day, Warren Buffett, investor extraordinaire, has given an unexpected boost to the gloomy state of the newspaper business. Having famously announced only four years ago that he wouldn't buy a newspaper “at any price,” Buffett now sees special value in a distinct category of daily papers; namely, those best able to define what readers want in small- and medium-size markets like Gainesville.

In just the past 15 months, his investment behemoth, Berkshire Hathaway, known for acquiring very big properties (the latest being the food giant, H. J. Heinz), has acquired 28 daily newspapers in places like Charlottesville, Va., Winston-Salem, N.C., Florence, S.C., and College Station, Texas.

Rest assured, the Oracle of Omaha hasn't lost his marbles or closed his eyes to the overwhelmingly bleak conditions generally enveloping the newspaper business. He sees what we all see: big-city dailies folding or cutting back almost everywhere, caught in a vicious cycle of fading readership, diminished advertising and the ever-changing habits of consumers in the digital age. Today, more Americans obtain news online than from radio or newspapers, and, when interviewed, only 23 percent say they read a print newspaper the day before ( a figure that was 50 percent just a decade ago, according to Pew Research).

It's a sad story, particularly if you're a news junkie and devoted “broadsheet” dinosaur like me. And, it's not just the printed newspaper business that's dying.

Most of the iconic weekly news magazines have disappeared or morphed into something totally different. Time magazine, the most prominent and, until recently, successful, is now being spun off from its parent company, Time Warner, so the media giant can focus exclusively on more lucrative cable, TV and film businesses.

With so much bad news surrounding the print business, even fragmentary rays of hope are welcome. Buffett is not a business mogul looking to acquire political influence or gain notoriety by owning a major city daily — in the mold of Rupert Murdoch or Sam Zell. And, he's no starry-eyed sentimentalist just wanting newsprint on his hands.

No, Buffett is a tough-minded money man who, in this instance, has decided to distance himself from naysayers ready to write an obituary for the entire industry. In his view, daily papers that first ascertain and then focus, laser-like, on serving local community needs might have an extended lease on life. Tellingly, he eschews any interest in big-city dailies — believing that “hyper-localism” is extremely difficult to practice where so many disparate parts exist on such a large scale.

What Buffett is betting on is that papers like our Gainesville Sun will escape the death spiral of most big-city dailies because they serve smaller, more discrete markets characterized by a “pervasive sense of community.” As he says in a recent letter to shareholders, “A paper that serves the special informational needs of that community will remain indispensable to a significant portion of its residents.”

Put simply, people living in communities like Gainesville tend to have a greater common interest in things like high school sports, local special events and the actions of city and county commissions than they do in large, sprawling metropolitan areas like Miami. Gainesville residents also benefit from having a large, prestigious public university in their midst. “Go Gators” isn't just an offhanded expression, it's a deeply ingrained, widely shared rallying cry for the entire community.

In short, Gainesville seems to fit, perfectly, the type of closely-knit community that Buffett is targeting as potential winners in the deadly game of survival that the daily newspaper business has become. Whether he's right, remains to be seen.

I'm no cockeyed optimist. The printed newspaper business will continue to erode, perhaps even more rapidly over the next few years. But I also believe that, even in this digital age, what really counts the most is content. So, if giving the public the local stories, pictures and opinions they want ( that uniquely reflect the communities they live in ) turns out to be a winning formula for stemming the tide, I'll happily relish whatever extended run is in store for our printed Sun.

Carl Ramey is a former communications attorney and the author of “Mass Media Unleashed: How Washington Policymakers Shortchanged The American Public.” He lives in Gainesville.

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