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Buffetted by Buffett

When Warren Buffett starts buying newspapers and is now saying that they might have still have a life….I can hear journalists round the world cheering.

He thinks newspapers with a “community” focus will work better, especially where the community identity is strong. People will pick up a newspaper if it features themselves or people they know.

I suppose a small country like ours counts as one community? If so, is the Singapore identity and sense of community defined enough for people to pick up a newspaper to read? Circulation should be on the up and up, but it isn’t. Despite a more literate population that is bursting at the seams… I suppose some will say that its because the mainstream media is pro-government or use some other unkind epithet. The fact though is most of the news is mainly non-political and local. Or is it the prevalence of news on the Net? There though, you can get world news easily enough but bits and pieces of local news. Rather than be content with bite-size news, I would think that a citizen would be more interested in the lives of his fellow citizens and what’s happening in his ahhh backyard? Even if, I daresay, if what’s happening is pretty boring.

Some people think Buffet’s being simplistic:

On, Jeremy Bowman of the Motley Fool wrote:

“Unlike national papers, local news covers events in which volunteers could easily substitute for trained journalists. Do you really need a cub reporter at a high school sports game scribbling notes and snapping pictures when plenty of parents would likely be happy to post a few pictures on Facebook or another website and summarize the game in a paragraph or two? Couldn’t a concerned citizen sitting in on a school board accomplish the same thing?”

He said smaller cities and towns may have tighter communities than big cities, but news in small towns often travels simply through gossip, and the need for a local newspaper just isn’t as urgent as the need for media on a large scale.

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I’m rather horrified at the above. Trained journalists are trained journalists lah. Or we’ll just leave it to STOMP to do the work…

Then again,  Mr Buffet is talking about business. People will pick up the paper – I suppose he’s talking about paid newspapers – if it’s rooted in the community, he claimed. But as the commentator below pointed out, the key thing is ad dollars.

From New York University professor Clay Shirky: “Buffett doesn’t understand that business. … It is disruptive competition for ad dollars, not changing reader engagement, that has sent the industry into a tailspin.

“Without understanding what’s in it for advertisers, (Buffett’s) exhortation to ‘reign supreme in matters of local importance’ has no more strategic value than a halftime cheer; if all it took to run a profitable paper was good local coverage, newspapers would not be in this bind in the first place. …”

That’s why free newspapers can survive I suppose. So long as ADVERTISERS think the product is good, the paper will pay for itself. It really doesn’t matter what readers say, so long as the paper is pushed into their hands or land on their doorstep.

As an ex-journalist, I watch this debate with great interest. I think journalism should still be a professional thing, not a hobby. The reader is still number one, not advertiser and certainly not the Government. Amid all this questioning about the future of the newspaper business, I hope journalists will just knuckle down to the business of reporting the news, and leave the news business to the business people.

Anyway, I end on this hopeful note.

Simon Kelner, former editor of the British daily The Independent, wrote that although he’s never bought a share of stock in his life, he’s hoping Buffett, at 81, “hasn’t reached an age where his heart is overruling his head.”

“Whether the economics stack up is one thing, but he is surely right about the central role a paper plays in a community, both as town crier and as an overseer of local politics. In Britain, we have lost untold numbers of local papers and we are undoubtedly worse off as a result. …

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“In an age where we lead complicated, individualistic lives full of choice and distraction, the desire to connect with those around us assumes greater importance. This may be the seam that Warren Buffett is mining. I hope that — not for the first time — he’s proved right.”


Written By

An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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