Papers Other Than NY Times and Wall Street Journal May Not Survive: Buffett

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Warren Buffett, whose Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE: BRK-B) owns several newspapers, including his hometown Omaha World-Herald, made a particularly pessimistic comment about the newspaper industry. He told CNBC that the only two papers that are likely to make it through the current industry slaughter are The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, from New York Times Co. (NYSE: NYT) and News Corp. (NYSE: NWS), respectively.

For the shareholders of several public newspaper companies, the prediction is bleak. This includes major chains Gannett Co. Inc. (NYSE: GCI), Tronc Inc. (NASDAQ: TRNC) and McClatchy Co. (NYSE: MNI).

Buffett remarked on CNBC:

If you look, there are 1,300 daily newspapers left in the United States. (Berkshire Hathaway has) 31 of them. There were 1,700 or 1,800 not too long ago. Now, you’ve got the internet. Aside from the ones I mentioned, 1,400 or 1,300 of them haven’t figured out a way to make the digital model complement the print model.

Buffett’s observation probably has to do with the number of paid subscribers The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have. Other large U.S. newspapers have had trouble getting individual digital subscription numbers above a few tens of thousands per property. The New York Times had 1,853,000 paid digital-only subscribers at the end of 2016. The Wall Street Journal’s average daily digital subscribers were 1,080,000 for the last quarter of 2016.

As recently as two years ago, newspaper publishers believed online advertising could replace the attrition of print advertising. For the most part, this has not been true. And print subscriptions dollars face similar drop offs.

Buffett generally can be expected to make savvy and accurate assessment of industries. His current newspaper holdings are not the only ones he has had. He once owned a large amount of Capital Cities/ABC, which owned a number of dailies. That ownership stretched from 1985 until the company was sold to Walt Disney Co. (NYSE: DIS) in 1996. He was also a shareholder and board member of Washington Post long before Jeff Bezos bought it.

A number of analysts have pointed out the struggles of newspapers. Few assessments, however, are as brutal as Buffett’s.