A World Of Change

Image of Picasso work

The announcement that the Tulsa World, now owned by Berkshire Hathaway, is eliminating jobs should come as no surprise as metropolitan newspapers continue to search for a new business and profit model in the Information Era.

The only thing that seems certain is that the old system—essentially, delivering hard copies of newspapers to homes on a daily basis—is fast becoming a relic. I can honestly say I know of no one personally who consistently reads hard copies of daily newspapers. It’s quite possible that many of today’s younger readers have never read a hard copy daily newspaper in their lives and have no plans to ever do so. That’s the reality.

Yet the collective amount of paper and ink and transportation dollars that go into maintaining the home delivery system for metropolitan newspapers across the country must be truly mind-boggling. Do metropolitan newspapers, and I’m not just talking about the World, diminish resources for web-delivery of their product by clinging to the past or protecting what’s left of their old business model or the glory days of their existences? Do the new job eliminations at the World take this into account?

Berkshire Hathaway, Inc., controlled by Warren Buffett, announced this week it was eliminating about 50 jobs in administration, information technology and production at the World. Ten of those jobs will be shifted to the corporation, which also plans new distribution centers to reduce transportation costs. Two senior World editorial writers, David Averill, op-ed editor, and Janet Pearson, recently announced their retirements.

Berkshire Hathaway, under its BH Media Group subsidiary, has been buying up newspapers now for two years and just recently bought the World. It seems almost counter-intuitive given what’s happening in the industry, but Buffett is known first and foremost as an expert investor and perhaps sees something many of us simply can’t see for now. Certainly, a newspaper, such as the World, has a monopoly in its market but there are more and more outlets, web and otherwise, vying for limited advertising dollars. Then there’s the basic readership issue, as I mentioned, when it comes to hard-copy newspapers and the basic monetary cost and the damage to the environment of printing and delivering them.

Metropolitan daily newspapers have a wonderful tradition in this country and throughout the world, and truthful journalism remains a vital part of democracy, but the reality is that the way we obtain our information now through the Internet, including social media, has become diverse and fragmented. It’s difficult to build brand loyalty in a world where someone’s iPhone photograph of their lunch on Facebook gets as much immediate attention as a basic news story in the local daily.

Here are some observations I have about the World and the media landscape in Oklahoma right now:

  • Everyone continues to wonder whether the editorial page of the World will take a turn to the left because of its new ownership. Buffett, now 82, once supported Barack Obama for president and has been known to express progressive, political views, especially when it comes to taxation. World publisher Bill Masterson recently wrote, “ . . . you will see an editorial page that is loaded with opinion from columnists on both sides of the issues. The paper's editorial position will reflect the community in which we serve.” That, of course, can be read in different ways. The Tulsa area is a fairly conservative place when it’s all said and done, but “both sides of the issues” can mean a more balanced page. Perhaps, the larger question is whether editorial pages are even relevant anymore. Can an editorial in today’s polarized world even really sway someone to adopt a different opinion?

  • Both the World and The Oklahoman, the state’s two largest newspapers, are now owned by people outside the state. The reality is these newspapers could be sold again and sooner than some people might think. Does it matter? So far, the answer seems to be no. The editorial page of The Oklahoman, for example, has continued its right-wing war against logic under the ownership of Colorado oilman and billionaire Philip Anschutz. Nothing new there, but, again, does it even matter at this point who owns the local newspaper?

  • Many newspapers, including the World, The Oklahoman and even The New York Times, have begun experimenting with pay walls for online readers. I continue to believe this is NOT the new, successful business model for metropolitan daily newspapers. It opens the doors for competing free sites, which can dilute quality. It also alienates and frustrates potential users. How, then, do we pay for journalism? That’s the major question, and one that won’t be solved anytime soon. Perhaps, this will all lead to non-profit, independent media centers or university journalism departments working in conjunction with newspapers or even more partisan journalistic outlets paid for by vested, political interests. What we do know is that we’re not going back.

I believe that daily newspapers, in general, were slow to adopt to the demands of the Internet years ago and still remain isolated from their readership when compared to social media networks. They continue to cling to old rhetorical formats, such as the inverted pyramid story, or the 500 or 800-word op-ed, and refuse to commit entirely to a new direction. Will all this waffling between the old and the new eventually result in a new journalistic model or just further malaise in a once mighty industry?