Rare Book Monthly

Articles - April - 2013 Issue

Someone Very Rich Still Believes in Newspapers

Newspile

Do you still believe in newspapers? Many have written them off, consigned them to virtual extinction over the next decade or so. However, one person who does still believe in newspapers is America's most successful investor. Warren Buffet has put his money where his mouth is. Well, let's not get too carried away. We'll say he sort of believes and has sort of put his money there. It is a somewhat tepid endorsement, but a welcome one nonetheless. What was once the major if not only way to deliver current news needs all the friends it can get.

Mr. Buffet devoted several pages of his annual letter to shareholders to newspapers. Even he was aware that this might seem an odd investment, beginning the section with the ironic heading, “We Buy Some Newspapers. . . Newspapers?” He goes on to write, “During the past fifteen months, we acquired 28 daily newspapers at a cost of $344 million. This may puzzle you for two reasons. First, I have long told you in these letters and at our annual meetings that the circulation, advertising and profits of the newspaper industry overall are certain to decline. That prediction still holds.”

Circulation, advertising, and most of all, profits falling doesn't sound like the basis for an investment. Not depressed enough? Buffet goes on to write about how “newspapers were the primary source for an incredible variety of news, a fact that made them indispensable to a very high percentage of the population.” International, national and local news, sports and stock quotes all arrived first through your newspaper. Additionally, the advertising was a form of “news,” providing job openings, movie listings, and supermarket specials to readers. That made the local newspaper “indispensable to advertisers.” In communities with just one newspaper, and most cities saw the field condense to one, “its profits were certain to be extraordinary.”

“Now the world has changed,” Mr. Buffet continues. Stock and sports news is out of date before “the presses begin to roll.” The internet has replaced classified advertising, national news flows quickly from the television set. “In one area of interest after another, newspapers have therefore lost their 'primacy.' And, as their audiences have fallen, so has advertising.” Buffet has really made a strong case for newspapers. Why on earth would anyone invest $344 million in such a dying business?

Here is Buffet's answer: “Newspapers continue to reign supreme, however, in the delivery of local news. If you want to know what’s going on in your town – whether the news is about the mayor or taxes or high school football – there is no substitute for a local newspaper that is doing its job... Wherever there is a pervasive sense of community, a paper that serves the special informational needs of that community will remain indispensable to a significant portion of its residents.”

Still, Mr. Buffet acknowledges that local newspapers face difficulties and uncertainties. They need an internet presence, and have traditionally offered their online content for free. “How could this lead to anything other than a sharp and steady drop in sales of the printed product?” he asks. He notes that some newspapers have begun charging for web content, and said these have seen their circulation hold up better than most. Charging, however, is only a relatively recent phenomenon and he remains uncertain as to whether it will resolve the issue of subscribers moving from a paid newspaper to a free website. Unstated is the issue that charging for online content may be difficult because people are used to web content being free, and TV stations and others, used to providing free content, compete online for local news. “Whatever works best – and the answer is not yet clear – will be copied widely,” he adds uncertainly.

Buffet, and his company, Berkshire Hathaway, have mostly limited themselves to smaller market daily newspapers. His largest are in Omaha and Buffalo, but he has owned them for a long time. Were it not for his own beginnings in the newspaper business and a personal fondness, it is questionable whether he would be invested at all. When he purchased a group of newspapers a year ago, he deliberately left out the largest group in the chain, the Tampa daily. The risk appears lower when staying out of the large cities.

And then there is the point about that $344 million invested. To you and I, that sounds like a lot of money. For Mr. Buffet, who is personally worth over $50 billion, it is not. Berkshire Hathaway maintains a market capitalization of over $250 billion. To this company, its investment in newspapers is barely more than one-tenth of one percent of its net worth. Recently, the company announced a $23.6 billion offer to purchase H.J. Heinz Co. That's $23 billion for ketchup and pickles versus $343 million for newspapers. Mr. Buffet may be toying with a business he loves more than making a serious investment. The space in his letter devoted to newspapers far outweighs the size of his investment. Nonetheless, we will take anything positive about print media these days, especially when it comes from a man with such a sterling reputation.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Helvelius. Two Autograph Letters Signed to Francis Aston, Royal Society Secretary, noting his feud with Robert Hooke, 5 pp total, 1685. $70,000 to $100,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Newton, Isaac. Autograph manuscript on God, 4 pp, c.1710, "In the beginning was the Word...."?$100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. First edition, first issue. Untrimmed copy in contemporary boards. $30,000 to $50,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Lincoln, Abraham. Signed photograph, beardless portrait with Civil War provenance. $80,000 to $120,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> IMPEACHMENT. Original engrossed copy of the first Andrew Johnson impeachment resolution vote. $120,000 to $180,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Mucha, Alphonse. 11 original pencil drawings for?<i>Andelicek z Baroku,</i> "Litte Baroque Angel," Prague, 1929. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Einstein, Albert. Annotated Galley Proofs for <i>The Meaning of Relativity.</i> 1921. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Silverstein, Shel. Original maquette for <i>The Giving Tree,</i> 34 original drawings. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Roth, Philip. Typed Manuscript with substantial autograph corrections for an unpublished sequel to <i>The Breast.</i> $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Taupin, Bernie. Autograph Manuscript, the original draft of lyrics for Elton John's "Candle in the Wind," 2 pp, 1973. $100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> HARVEY, WILLIAM. <i>De Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus Anatomica Exercitatio.</i> Padua: 1643. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> CESALPINO, ANDREA. <i>Peripateticarum Quaestionum Libri Quinque.</i> Venice: 1571. $30,000 to $40,000.
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Francis Scott Key, <i>Star Spangled Banner,</i> first printing, c. 1814-16. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> William Sydney Porter, a.k.a. “O. Henry,” archive of drawings made to illustrate a lost mining memoir, c. 1883-84. $30,000 to $40,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> [Bay Psalm Book], printed for Hezekiah Usher of Boston, Cambridge, c. 1648-65. $50,000 to $75,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Book of Mormon, first edition, Palmyra, 1830. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> <i>Noticia estraordinario,</i> probable first announcement in Mexico City of the fall of the Alamo, 1836. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Patrick Gass, first edition of earliest first-hand account of the Lewis and Clarke expedition, Pittsburgh, 1807. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Diploma from the Princeton Class of 1783, commencement attended by Washington & Continental Congress. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> <i>Sprague Light Cavalry!</i> color-printed broadside, NY, 1863. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> <i>The Lincoln & Johnson Union Campaign Songster,</i> Philadelphia, 1864. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Lucy Parsons, labor organizer, albumen cabinet card, New York, 1886. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Daniel L.F. Swift, journal as third mate on a Pacific Whaling voyage, 1848-1850. $3,000 to $4,0000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Two photos of Thomas Moran, Grand Canyon, silver prints, 1901. $1,500 to $2,500.

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