Cutting news resources ‘like a death’, says Buffett’s media man

Mood of cautious optimism at local newspaper conference

When billionaire Warren Buffett went on a shopping spree for US newspapers in 2012, it prompted some to sit up and think "maybe print isn't dead" - one of the richest men in the world doesn't think so, at least.

"Much of the doom and gloom" about the industry is printed in newspapers themselves, Buffett's right-hand-man in the trade, Terry Kroeger, noted at a Local Ireland newspaper conference in Dublin.

The Berkshire Hathaway Media chief executive admitted it could be "frustrating" to be a publisher on the days of those reports.

The ninth largest newspaper group in the US operates on the philosophy that “skimpy news coverage means skimpy circulation”, Mr Kroeger explained. He “would do anything” to avoid editorial cutbacks.

“I view cutting news resources like a death in the family.”

There have, as Connacht Tribune group editor Dave O'Connell observed in response, been "a lot of deaths" in the Irish newspaper industry in recent times.

The struggle may not be over, but in 2015, a mood of cautious optimism is creeping back into the local industry, as evidenced by the official Twitter hashtag for the event: “#LocalMovingOn”.

Sean Mahon, president of Local Ireland and managing director of the Southern Star in Cork, said both national brands and small businesses were once again advertising in local newspapers.

Distorted marketplace

But the industry is operating in an "unfair and distorted marketplace", Mr Mahon told Minister for Communications Alex White, because local titles have to compete with a dual-funded RTÉ for a share of online advertising.

The Minister did not address the question of RTÉ funding in his speech to the conference.

He did pay tribute to the journalistic skills found at local titles. The picture he most enjoyed seeing during his failed challenge for the leadership of the Labour Party last year was one that the Sligo Champion uncovered of him "on a donkey, circa 1967", he said.

Introducing charges for content online was another big theme of the conference. Frank Mulrennan, chief executive of local newspaper group Celtic Media, said local titles needed national newspapers "to get their act together" and introduce digital paywalls.

“We don’t have a paywall culture in this country and we need our national corporates to lead it, before we in the local industry will have the muscle to do it too.”

Speaking of the US experience, Mr Kroeger said it was only in the past year that Berkshire Hathaway’s titles have begun experimenting with metered paywalls.

“I wish we could say we have convinced everybody, because we haven’t. We’re of the opinion that you have got to start somewhere.”

As for Buffett, “as bosses go, he’s as good as it gets”, he was pleased to report. “Each time I meet Warren, I feel smarter after the meeting. I sure hope it’s not a zero-sum game.”