Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2012, 6:10 am
Newspaper industry ready for another healthy year
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By Roger Ruthhart
It might sound like a pretty obvious statement since you are reading today's paper ... but we are still here!
Several years ago I took the opportunity to write a series of columns that ran over the Thanksgiving weekend debunking the charges by the electronic media that newspapers were dying and would be gone in five years.
Each year since, I have used the holiday weekend as an opportunity to update you on how the industry is doing. As I said, we are still here and so are most of our brethren, although like many businesses a bit leaner thanks to the multi-year economic recession that we are still trying to claw our way out of.
Like many businesses, newspapers have been going through a period of radical change.
Technology has changed the way we do things -- mostly for the good, although we are still trying to strike the right balance between our legacy, print newspapers and niche publications, and new digital products.
As I have said before in these columns, the newspapers that are struggling and seem to gain the big headlines are mostly major metro papers that are publicly owned and carrying are large load of debt.
I also have noted that newspapers in small- and medium-sized markets are stronger than the large metro papers which use huge amounts of newsprint and have to sustain a large delivery network to reach their metropolitan regions and beyond.
Owners of The Dispatch and Rock Island Argus obviously want to be profitable. But beyond that, our biggest worry is taking care of our readers and advertisers -- not stockholders and Wall Street. We come to work every day with that thought in mind.
You can still call our newspaper and talk with me, other department heads, or our publisher, Jerry Taylor. Try to do that in Chicago, New York or Miami.
I still believe that once we kick this recession, newspapers in markets of this size and smaller (which is most of the papers in the country), will continue to thrive. I think the metros will too -- they are just going to have to work a little bit harder.
Probably the most notable thing to happen in our industry during the past year was the significant investment in small- to medium-sized newspapers by Berkshire Hathaway Inc. led by its iconic chairman, Warren Buffett.
He shared some insight into the future in comments made to his publishers and editors last summer. Excerpts follow:
"Though the economics of the business have drastically changed since our purchase of the Buffalo News (in 1977), I believe newspapers that intensively cover their communities will have a good future. It's your job to make your paper indispensable to anyone who cares about what it going on in your city or town ..."
"Berkshire will probably purchase more papers in the next few years. We favor towns and cities with a strong sense of community, comparable to the 26 in which we will soon operate. If a citizenry care little about its community, it will eventually care little about its newspaper. In a very general way, strong interest in community affairs varies inversely with population size and directly with the number of years a community's population has been in residence. Therefore, we will focus on small and mid-sized papers in long-established communities. ..."
"American papers have only failed when one or more of the following factors was present: (1) The town or city had two or more competing dailies; (2), the paper lost its position as the primary source of information important to its readers, or (3) the town or city did not have a pervasive self-identity. We don't face these problems.
"Indeed, the papers we own or are buying have been successful on both the journalistic and business fronts. They have earned the time, money and respect that subscribers allot them."
I think Mr. Buffett summed up our newspapers' position very well. Besides, who am I to argue with someone who has been as successful at investing as Warren Buffett?
See you back here again next year.
Roger Ruthhart is managing editor of The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.