By Matt Holden | Ball State University
Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Media Group has purchased 28 newspapers for $344 million in just the last two years, signaling that one of the world's richest men and his company's shareholders believe local news - the printed kind - remains a valuable community asset and can turn a profit.
"It is an exciting time in the industry," said Terry Kroeger, president and publisher of The Omaha World-Herald, just days before making similar remarks at the 2013 Associated Press Media Editors Conference in Indianapolis. He noted he isn't the only one who shares enthusiasm for the medium, pointing to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who purchased for $250 million in early August.
"I reached out to Jeff after I heard, and I told him I was rooting for him," Kroeger said. "We are sort of in this together in not knowing what is going to happen over the next several years."
The BH strategy is focused on small newspaper markets and the local franchise each represents at a time when print journalism is struggling to develop new business models that don't involve cutting pages or employees.
"Print will still be an important part of the business, while digital will continue to have a growing market share," Kroeger said.
Earlier this year Buffett was quoted in Forbes magazine: "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."
The concept of hyper-local news coverage is nothing new. Kroeger pointed out that The Omaha World-Herald still publishes seven days a week (bucking a recent trend of papers reducing frequency or even going all digital) while they offer a metered-approach online.
What remains unknown is how advertising will evolve. Kroeger admits that making money digitally is still a challenge. "We're always trying new things in advertising, but print advertising is still very effective and very important to us," said Kroeger.
Kroeger said uncertainty isn't a reason to stop innovating but doing the basics well is equally important. In order to make money through advertising, newspapers have to continue to create quality content that is worth paying for, he said. BH Media Group believes that communities want local content, and that they are willing to pay for it.
In order to get great content, Kroeger says he wants to hire people who are energetic and talented, who have skills in all areas of journalism.
"We aren't looking for one specific type of skill set, we want people who want to do the work and are comfortable writing stories on any platform," said Kroeger.
This is especially true when print is leveraged as premium paid content to supplement digital news. Kroeger says that his newspaper's most active digital readers are the same ones who subscribe to the print paper, so they have to be ready to tell stories in different ways in order to give the audience a well-rounded and diverse selection of news.
The Omaha World-Herald is starting to do this by diversifying its products, with the addition of apps for the Apple and Android devices. Apps such as the NE Prep Zone and Big Red today are sports-focused applications that provide readers with extra content exclusive to their region. While free right now, these soon will be paid apps that add another revenue stream to the OWH's media packages.
These sorts of additions are part of Kroeger's plan to tell stories on as many platforms as possible. "If there is a technology that has public acceptance, we need to embrace that technology," said Kroeger. "I tell my staff that if it is a hologram on a table, we need to figure out how to tell a story using it."
Whether it's a hologram on a table or a printed newspaper delivered to the driveway, the one Berkshire Hathaway constant is to produce the best possible local content for that local audience - a commodity they cannot get anywhere else.