Despite what the “Oracle” Warren Buffett says, keeping citizens informed and engaged is what real journalism is all about.
Playing the billionaires’ news game, mega-investor Warren Buffett once held a portfolio of 31 dailies and 49 weeklies, including such major city papers as the Buffalo News and the Omaha World Herald. He specialized in squeezing out competitors. His scheme was to create monopoly papers and then chop staff and news content, letting him glean annual profit margins above 30%.
But alas for poor Warren, along came the internet, allowing people to root around for free to find local information missing from his hollowed-out papers. Unsurprisingly, his newspapers soon began losing readers, advertisers and profits. So, in 2020, Buffett bailed, selling off his entire portfolio. But rather than concede that maybe his slash-and-burn, profit-maximization approach had produced inferior products, “The Oracle of Omaha,” as Wall Street had labeled him, blasted the whole idea of the local newspaper as a dinosaur, a doomed species beyond anyone’s ability to save it. Local newspapers are “toast,” he proclaimed.
But wait, Oh Great Oracle, when done right, timely local publications both chronicle and help shape a community’s story. And that’s a social benefit that is as valuable — and as marketable — as ever. It’s not that people have given up on local news, but corporate-owned papers have. They’re not really local; not very newsy; and not of, by and for the workaday people in our multifaceted communities.
For example, nearly every corporate daily publishes a business section, which mostly amounts to yesterday’s stock prices, corporate press releases, meaningless syndicated filler and puff pieces about yet another high-tech startup. Does even 1% of the population read that stuff? Meanwhile, how about economic news of interest to the great majority of locals who’re workaday families? Where’s the regular section that digs into the area’s wages, job losses and openings, workplace conditions, commuting advice, affordable housing, worker safety, job discrimination, child care availability, abuse hotlines, unionizing efforts and the myriad other real-life issues that confront this majority on a daily basis? As I’ve long maintained, the relevant indicator of the well-being of nearly every American family is not the Dow Jones Industrial Average (which newspapers cover obsessively), but the Doug Jones Average. How are Doug and Donna doing? That’s news that would sell papers.
While investment syndicates aggressively merge, purge, shrink and loot traditional businesses in my town and yours, a phoenix is rising in the spaces they’ve left behind. We don’t need to surrender to the local-papers-are-toast narrative, for imagination and grit are loose on the land. From big cities to rural counties, hundreds of determined efforts, often led by people of color, are underway to find new ways to pay for and revive top-quality local newspaper journalism.
Take just one aspect with both a substantive and symbolic impact: the newsroom itself. Sparked by populist creativity, scrappy new community papers are moving into friendlier, more central, street-level newsrooms — set in public libraries, college journalism schools, etc. — so that regular people can see and have direct access to reporters and editors. For example, the Ferndale (California) Enterprise works from an old Victorian home, renting upstairs rooms to vacationers for additional income. The editor of the Sahan Journal in Minneapolis moves his weekly editorial meeting to the offices of various grassroots groups so their members can help shape the paper’s coverage. And in Marfa, Texas, the Big Bend Sentinel is literally serving the public, not only with a good weekly, but also with The Sentinel — a combo coffee shop, cozy bar, cafe, event space and hangout for locals to meet and greet.
It was not so very long ago that dozens of scrappy, independent newsweeklies sprang up in city after city, town after town. By creating a viable alternative model of free tabloids, they outflanked the monopoly dailies in their markets, dramatically increasing coverage of ignored community issues and voices. Now come “paperless” city papers like Lookout (Santa Cruz), Billy Penn (Philadelphia) and DigBoston; special topic news sites like Daily Yonder (rural) and Circle of Blue (water); and hundreds of hardscrabble community papers like Flint Beat and Iowa’s Storm Lake Times.
In ways big and small, dedicated local journalists are experimenting with funding, structures, staffing, etc., to produce the news that democracy requires. Note to Wall Street vultures and any so-called oracle: These newspaper ventures aren’t intended to “scale up” to maximize investor profits. As Josh Stearns of the Democracy Fund says — it was corporate cost-cutting, consolidation and “scaling” that got us into today’s mess of journalistic collapse. Instead, by sharing ideas, learning and resources, these local innovators help each other succeed. And unlike the Wall Street model, their success is not measured simply by financial return, but also by community benefit — how they do at keeping citizens informed and engaged. That’s real journalism.