September 27, 2012

Publisher's Notebook: Buffett believes in newspapers

By Willie Sawyers

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — The recession and the digital transformation have put tremendous pressure on newspapers. Many papers, mostly large metropolitan dailies, are half the size they used to be, in both page count and staffing levels.

Doomsayers predict there won’t be a printed newspaper in 10 years. Of course, they said the same thing 10 years ago.

Warren Buffet is not a doomsayer where newspapers are concerned. In fact, he sees a bright future for community newspapers like the Sentinel-Echo.

He recently put his considerable wealth behind that belief by purchasing about 60 newspapers from Media General Inc. His Berkshire Hathaway newspaper holdings went from one daily newspaper to 26, and about 34 weeklies. He said the company may buy more.

Buffet’s investment was a shot in the arm to an industry that has been reeling from cuts in its largest advertising base, including automotive, real estate and classifieds. Readers, mostly younger ones, also are preferring to get their news online or on mobile devices.

But the billionaire investment guru expects the losses to stabilize and for newspapers to remain an integral part of their communities for the foreseeable future. He rarely invests in doomed industries.

“Though the economics of the business have drastically changed since our purchase of The Buffalo News, I believe newspapers will have a good future,” Buffet wrote to the publishers and editors of his newly-acquired properties. “It’s your job to make your paper indispensable to anyone who cares about what is going on in your city or town.”

To make the paper indispensable, Buffet said “that will mean both maintaining your news hole — a newspaper that reduces its coverage of the news is certain to reduce its readership as well — and thoroughly covering all aspects of area life, including local sports.”

Here at the Sentinel, we’ve always followed that sage advice by being deeply rooted into the community. We’ve not shrunk our news hole and we don’t base the size of the paper solely on the amount of advertising sold. If we have more news to run than the advertising percentage supports, we always add the pages. We want to produce a robust, vibrant package that takes readers more than five minutes to get through.

Buffett likes local sports and we do as well. We run four or five pages of local sports each issue. Denis House and Mitch Howard do a great job of covering our high school, middle school and youth sporting activities.

Our staffing levels have remained constant over the years and we currently have a talented group of writers that turn out quality stories about this community. We don’t miss much of the important events and issues that affect our daily lives in London and Laurel County.

Personally, I like to read our columnists and their take on current events or their personal observations. Yes, we have a talented group of writers.

 I also like our “Neighbors” profiles that run each week, usually on Monday. Since January 2011, we’ve run about 90 profiles on regular, yet interesting, folks in London and Laurel County.

Buffett also affirmed the importance of highlighting local people in the newspaper. “No one has ever stopped reading halfway through a story that was about them or their neighbors,” he said.

Because of its local coverage, the Sentinel-Echo remains the preferred advertising vehicle for retail and classified customers in the area. Despite free online classifieds offered by others, people still will pay to put their yard sales in the paper because they know it brings in customers. The same goes for car dealers, furniture stores and other advertisers.

Our website is an important part of our reach and, through it, the Sentinel is now reaching more people than ever. Each month, about 30,000 unique visitors come to and click through our pages. Combined with our print circulation, we are now reaching about 64,000 people. That’s amazing.

But our website does not contain everything from the newspaper. Currently only 25 percent of the local population has high-speed Internet access and relies on the printed addition. Also, we can’t give away all our content for free, which has seriously undermined many metro newspapers.

Buffet recognized that as an “unsustainable model.” His newspapers, as well as ours, are moving toward a paid subscription model for our website similar to our printed product. That’s the only way ”we can attract both the audience and the revenue we want.”

It was nice to see that someone as influential as Warren Buffet believes in the future of newspapers — something we knew already.