When I heard Warren Buffett on Charlie Rose a few months ago, he seemed pretty bullish on well run newspapers, particularly the Washington Post.
This week, he has struck a decidedly pessimistic tone.
We are likely therefore to see non-economic individual buyers of newspapers emerge, just as we have seen such buyers acquire major sports franchises. Aspiring press lords should be careful, however: Thereâ€™s no rule that says a newspaperâ€™s revenues canâ€™t fall below its expenses and that losses canâ€™t mushroom. Fixed costs are high in the newspaper business, and thatâ€™s bad news when unit volume heads south. As the importance of newspapers diminishes, moreover, the â€œpsychicâ€? value of possessing one will wane, whereas owning a sports franchise will likely retain its cachet.
Me, I remain quite optimistic about the future of newspaper journalism. We have our challenges and along way to go, but I think we’re finally moving in the right direction online. And Buffett isn’t really giving up either. He’s just saying the future will be very different for investors.
Unless we face an irreversible cash drain, we will stick with the News, just as weâ€™ve said that we would. (Read economic principle 11, on page 76.) Charlie and I love newspapers â€“ we each read five a day â€“ and believe that a free and energetic press is a key ingredient for maintaining a great democracy. We hope that some combination of print and online will ward off economic doomsday for newspapers, and we will work hard in Buffalo to develop a sustainable business model. I think we will be successful. But the days of lush profits from our newspaper are over.