A lesson from Warren Buffett: Newspapers’ value rests in their relevance


Spurred on by John Newby’s April 10th blog, “Smaller markets or print footprints: Which approach will win?” I re-read Warren Buffett’s 2012 shareholder letter, with a particular focus on an explanation of why he bought newspapers beginning on page 16.

(As an aside, I recommend all executives make this an annual read. Mr. Buffett’s shareholder letters provide a wonderful tutorial in strategic thinking, economic wisdom, and humble stewardship.)

Back to newspapers. Yes, Mr. Buffett believes in the power of print. He also believes in the economic equivalence of print and digital — valuable content shouldn’t be given away for free.

Mr. Buffett’s letter also references a strong audience development credo, linking relevance and the perceived value among readers.

You can debate Mr. Buffett’s perception of what constitutes shrinking content when it’s disseminated across both print and digital platforms, but he’s right on point in advocating consumer pricing across platforms for highly relevant content. 

Find the greatest points of relevance between readers and the newspaper. Then, promote them!

An excerpt from Mr. Buffett’s letter reads: “Charlie and I believe that papers delivering comprehensive and reliable information to tightly bound communities and having a sensible Internet strategy will remain viable for a long time.”

While Buffett’s company, Berkshire Hathaway, might focus on hyper-local markets, Buffett’s strategy applies broadly, as well. Value comes from relevance and an organisation’s ability to capitalise on that connection.

Relevance can be connecting a reader to his community, but it can also be the link between a Wall Street Journal reader and the business of life, or a New York Times reader and his desire to be connected globally.

No matter its size or scope, relevance is specific to a “tightly bound community” and articulated by the publication.

What are your newspaper’s points of relevance and how actively does your organisation promote them?

Translate that relevance to value with the help of the right platform.

Leverage relevance across digital platforms by tailoring design, content curation, and pricing reflect Mr. Buffett’s economic wisdom.

I suggest a slight nuance to his plea to not shrink content.

Rather, before considering cost savings from content reductions, consider cost effectively allocating the most relevant content to its appropriate platforms — be it print or digital. This may result in a smaller print product if digital platforms are strategically selected to showcase the content’s relevance.

  • If a publication’s most relevant content relies on the ability to enjoy the serendipity of knowledge-gathering, it’s important for readers to feel they’ve read the full publication — front to back, or back to front. Print newspapers and tablets are the best platforms for this content.

  • What if the relevant content relies on satisfying curiosity? A Web site, with its many connections to external content, is key.

  • And, of course, if quick bursts of information, like high school sports scores, are highly relevant in a market, smartphone apps will satisfy this need.

The fundamental task is a discovery process for an organisation to understand its core relevance, or essence, and match that content to the appropriate platform. Doing so will reinforce consumer value and the ability to successfully “charge” for the content.

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