Comment: Advice for billionaires who want to buy newspapers

Hoping to save newspapers from a hedge fund is admirable, but know what you’re getting into.

By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post

Within a few days, we may know whether some of America’s great newspapers — the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun and several others — will be bought by a profit-sucking hedge fund or a group of apparently well-intentioned wealthy individuals.

Most of us who care about local journalism are pulling hard for the rich guys, who include a Maryland hotel magnate, Stewart Bainum Jr. and a Swiss billionaire, Hansjörg Wyss. They seem to have their heart in the right place. (Update: As of Monday, Wyss reportedly had pulled out of the bid, but Bainum was pressing ahead with his offer.)

“Maybe I’m naïve,” Wyss said, before reconsidering, “but the combination of giving enough money to a professional staff to do the right things and putting quite a bit of money into digital will eventually make a very profitable newspaper.”

The hedge fund, Alden Global Capital, on the other hand, has never had much to say about their intention which in previous endeavors has amounted to stripping newspapers for parts. Some of the saddest stories in the decline of local journalism have come after Alden descends on a town.

Newsrooms cut to the bone at places like the Denver Post and the San Jose Mercury News can no longer provide robust news coverage to their communities, and there’s precious little strategic thinking about how to make the papers sustainable into the future.

At Alden, it’s not about the journalism. It’s all about the next profit-and-loss statement.

If Bainum is successful with his $680 million offer — which tops a $630 million one from Alden — they ought to know a few things about owning a newspaper. So should the local investors to whom they hope to sell Tribune papers including the Orlando Sentinal and Allentown Morning Call.

I’m no billionaire and I’ve never owned anything more valuable than a house. But I can claim some expertise. For three decades I worked at the Buffalo News, then owned by one of the world’s perennially richest people, investor Warren Buffett. That includes the years I was the paper’s top editor and a corporate officer. (Buffett sold all of his papers last year to Lee Enterprises.)

And a few years before I came to work at The Washington Post in 2016, Jeff Bezos — now the world’s wealthiest person — paid $250 million for the struggling newspaper.

So here are my three best pieces of advice.

1. Stay out of the newsroom. And I mean, way out. Completely out. Your editor is in charge of news; which, unfortunately, will inevitably include you and your businesses, and your family, and whatever skeletons you may have in your capacious closets.

The minute you start to tinker, the entire newsroom and then the entire world, will know about it, and your reputation will be shot. So will your newspaper’s credibility, which is its major asset.

I’m sure Jeff Bezos hasn’t enjoyed The Post’s thorough coverage of Amazon’s disputes with its workers, any more than he was thrilled by our coverage of the photographic indiscretions that preceded his very public divorce. But from everything I know, and everything just-retired Marty Baron has ever said, Bezos never tried to intervene or apply pressure.

Warren Buffett never did that either. Those of us on the editorial board certainly knew what his politics were, and what national candidates he backed, but we felt free to make our own endorsement calls.

2. Don’t expect to make money any time soon. Maybe ever. Your goals should be breaking even and doing something good for society. Even these goals are lofty in today’s local newspaper business, where a once-foolproof business model has been badly disrupted, as I detailed in my 2020 book, “Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy.” Buffett himself in a 2019 interview with Yahoo Finance depressingly described how the business had changed over many decades: “It went from monopoly to franchise to competitive to … toast.”

Some local papers — including the Boston Globe and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune — are finding a path forward that includes a wealthy owner, high-quality journalism, a strong connection to the readership, and a smart digital plan. The Post is financially successful these days, but that’s partly because of a business strategy that requires the scale of a national or even global audience; something most regional papers can’t aspire to.

3. Know that you’ve bought yourself a permanent headache. News organizations are trouble. They regularly get sued, deservedly or not. Many of their employees are, by nature, malcontents.

I’ve often wondered if one of the world’s richest physicians, Patrick Soon-Shiong, has regretted his decision to buy the Los Angeles Times for $500 million in 2018. It’s been a struggle, as the paper itself reported in February:

“The Times was making progress with its revenue goals a year ago; until fears about the covid-19 pandemic obliterated the advertising market. The Times also grappled with internal turmoil last summer and a painful reckoning on its historic treatment of race in the newsroom and its news pages.”

Does he want out? The Wall Street Journal reported that he was exploring a sale but he quickly denied it. Because Soon-Shiong owns a big chunk of Tribune company stock, he may well be the determining voice on whether Alden or Bainum prevails.

Let’s hope, despite the rocky times, that Soon-Shiong still believes in newspapers.

Because here’s my final piece of advice to the would-be owners: By all means, go ahead and try. The mission is worth it.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.

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