George Johnson at Hypergene digs up Warren Buffet’s eulogy for the newspaper business and notes that, gee, we didn’t see much coverage of this in newspapers. He gets the quotes from Matt Stichnoth’s coverage of this year’s Warrenstock.
The outlook for newspapers is not great. In the TV business, a license from the government was essentially the right to a royalty stream. There were basically three highways to people’s eyeballs, and companies like P&G, Ford, Gillette, and GM would pay a significant amount of money to be get on those highways and advertise their products to a mass audience. But as the ways to get in front of people’s eyeballs increases, the value of those highways goes down. …
Q: If you were looking at newspaper publishers as possible investments, what would you use as a margin of safety?
WB: What multiple should you for a company that earns $100 million per year whose earnings are falling by 5% per year rather than rising by 5% per year? Newspapers face the prospect of seeing their earnings erode indefinitely. It’s unlikely that at most papers, circulation or ad pages will be larger in five years than they are now. That’s even true in cities that are growing.
But most owners don’t yet see this protracted decline for what it is. The multiples on newspaper stocks are unattractively high. They are not cheap enough to compensate for the companies’ earnings power. Sometimes there’s a perception lag between the actual erosion of a business and how that erosion is seen by investors. Certain newspaper executives are going out and investing on other newspapers. I don’t see it. It’s hard to make money buying a business that’s in permanent decline. If anything, the decline is accelerating. Newspaper readers are heading into the cemetery, while newspaper non-readers are just getting out of college. The old virtuous circle, where big readership draws a lot of ads, which in turn draw more readers, has broken down.
Charlie and I think newspapers are indispensable. I read four a day. He reads five. We couldn’t live without them. But a lot of people can now. This used to be the ultimate bulletproof franchise. It’s not anymore.
CM: I used to think that GM was a bulletproof franchise. Now I’d put GM and newspapers in the “Too Hard” pile. If something is too hard to do, we look for something that isn’t too hard. What could be more obvious?
WB: It may be that no one has followed the newspaper business as closely as we have for as long as we have–50 years or more. It’s been interesting to watch newspaper owners and investors resist seeing what’s going on right in front of them. It used to be you couldn’t make a mistake managing a newspaper. It took no management skill–like TV stations. Your nephew could run one.