5.29.12 Everyone was talking news last week. First, we learned that Warren Buffett was coming to a store near us, and then the Oracle of Omaha delivered a prophecy (in a letter to his editors and publishers) to make a newsman glow.
Later, David Carr, of the New York Times and The Night of the Gun fame, wrote an innocent little story about how the New Orleans Times-Picayune was scaling back to three days a week because its circulation had dropped to half of its pre-Katrina level. Two classic Southern newspaper chains are moving in different directions.
Advance Publications, which also runs the major daily papers in Alabama, is cutting circulation, distribution, and staff and shifting its emphasis online. Media General’s papers, as part of BH Media, are ridding themselves of their debt and doubling down the bet in their markets.
You know the story. The InterWeb set up shop next to the paperboy and started selling for free. According to a publishing audit cited in the NYT story, newspapers have dropped in circulation 20 percent over the past five years. Buffett addressed the trend in his letter, which was kind of a manifesto: “We must rethink the industry’s initial response to the Internet. The original instinct of newspapers then was to offer free in digital form what they were charging for in print. This is an unsustainable model.”
I think everybody understands that you can’t give away content, because content relies on the human beings who gather it and produce it, and you can’t get them for free. Either the reader or the advertiser has to pick up the tab, or they can split it.
Buffett’s exhortation to his own papers, though, points out the complexity of the problem facing daily newspapers: “But 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 those problems.”
Unless that’s the royal “we” talking, I’d argue that the challenge of the Internet is that: A) anyone can be daily; B) daily newspapers have already lost their positions as primary sources of information for younger generations; and C) no town in America has a pervasive self-identity. I don’t claim to know more about this than Buffett; just a reminder that oracles traditionally delivered messages in riddles.—Giles Morris