Illustration by Kristy Heilenday
So there crouched Cinderella by the fireplace, soot on her cheeks and grime under her fingernails, as her fairy godmother suddenly appeared to make her wishes all come true.
Berkshire Hathaway's equally surprising entrance this May as the buyer of 63 newspapers formerly owned by Media General may not be a fairy tale, but there's more hope for a happy ending than before.
I was a copy editor and then a reporter at the Daily Progress in Charlottesville for seven years before taking a job at this magazine. Among my reasons for leaving the paper in 2006 was the feeling that the "little people" producing the paper weren't appreciated by its owner, Media General. I wasn't paid a living wage (at least for Charlottesville), and our newsroom was almost always understaffed, and this was before the advent of unpaid furloughs and massive layoffs. We did good work despite our corporate ownership, not because of it.
The same happened at the Times-Dispatch, as has been documented here and elsewhere. The paper laid off 59 people in 2009, including our own senior editor Tina Eshleman, and more positions have been eliminated since then. (Note: Our editor-in-chief, Susan Winiecki, is married to the T-D's political editor, Andrew Cain.)
I spoke with some staffers at the Omaha World-Herald, the hometown paper Berkshire Hathaway bought in late 2011. The World-Herald's situation was different from Media General's papers (although the T-D is profitable) when it was purchased — at the time, it was employee-owned and in the black. Berkshire Hathaway's media company, BH News Group, has not changed how the paper is produced, says Larry King, vice president of content for Omaha World-Herald Co. However, the hands-off policy may not hold true here.
The Times-Dispatch and other former MG papers (among them community weeklies around Richmond and other publications in the Southeast) will be overseen by a newly formed company, World Media Enterprises, part of BH News Group. The president and CEO of BH News Group, Terry Kroeger, and World Media president Douglas Hiemstra are experienced in the business side of journalism, King says. Kroeger was a publisher, and Hiemstra is a CPA.
"They're very employee-oriented," King adds. Despite the sale, the Times-Dispatch's structure is not expected to change drastically; Tom Silvestri remains publisher.
Buffett has expressed his fondness for local newspapers, but he's not blinded by it. He knows he has the raw material to make these papers must-reads in their communities, and he got the properties at a bargain, especially once Media General pays back his $400 million loan with 10 percent interest by 2020.
If the T-D and the rest of the papers are to succeed, Berkshire Hathaway must take action to amend harm done by Media General, which was slow to react to what was happening to newspapers across the country. First, classified ads migrated to Craigslist, and then, more and more content went online for free, diluting the market for newspapers. Paywalls developed too late, and they still don't work as a major income source unless the paper has proprietary information. (Nonetheless, Buffett and, earlier, Media General have stated that paywalls will be part of their papers' future.) Also, MG's leadership seemed top-heavy, with lots of vice presidents whose functions weren't always clear.
Here are my wishes for the newspapers: Rebuild the beat system. Reporters can't report effectively if they don't get to know sources. Second, rebuild the lifestyles sections. Third, move the copy desks back to the newspapers they serve, instead of managing copy from a distance. Fourth, maintain a firewall between advertising and news coverage. Finally, get the executives into the newsrooms, the photographers' offices and the pressrooms. Listen to the employees.