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Monday, March 18, 2013

TULSA WORLD: Warren Buffett's love of newspapers goes back to his youth

By WAYNE GREENE World Senior Writer
Published: 3/17/2013  2:23 AM
Last Modified: 3/17/2013  11:16 AM

  Related Story: Buffett: Local papers have healthy future

Warren Buffett - reportedly the second-richest man in America - came to the newspaper trade honestly.

In a 2012 letter to publishers and editors of newspapers owned by his BH Media Group, Buffett said his father, a four-term congressman, had been the editor of The Daily Nebraskan as a college student.

His mother grew up around a small family-owned newspaper in West Point, Neb., where she learned a variety of skills, including how to run a Linotype machine.

His parents met when his mother applied for a job at the school paper.

Today, Buffett reads five newspapers a day.

"I've loved newspapers all of my life - and always will," Buffett wrote in the letter.

Buffett's BH Media Group purchased the Tulsa World on Saturday. From Buffett to the local publisher's office, the company is led by people who love newspapers and are dedicated to making them successful through local engagement.

One of Buffett's first jobs was delivering newspapers - The Washington Post. At the age of 13, he claimed a $35 deduction for the bicycle he used on his route.

He loved newspapers, but his calling was making money - something he did well.

At age 14, Buffett used $1,200 of his savings from his teen enterprises - including that paper route - to invest in 40 acres of farmland.

Today, Buffett, 82, sits atop the Berkshire Hathaway empire, a giant conglomerate of investments that includes railroads, insurance, fast foods and scores of small- and medium-size newspapers.

Forbes estimates his total wealth at $53.5 billion, second in the U.S. only to Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates.

Although Buffett has ink in his veins, he leaves management of his growing empire of newspapers to lifelong professionals.

At the top of the BH Media Group is President and CEO Terry Kroeger, who is also publisher of the Omaha World-Herald, Nebraska's largest newspaper.

Kroeger started at the World-Herald in 1985 as the assistant purchasing agent and property manager. He later worked as business manager at the Kearney (Neb.) Hub and as publisher of The (Stockton, Calif.) Record before returning to Omaha in 1999. He became the president and chief operating officer of the Omaha World-Herald Co. in 2005 and CEO in 2008.

Last year, after Buffett put together a deal to purchase the 63-newspaper Media General chain, he called Kroeger and told him he wanted him to run the Berkshire Hathaway media division.

Like Kroeger, all of BH Media's top executives have operating roles in daily newspapers. That's a conscious choice on the chain's part to keep its executives aware of the realities of the business, Kroeger said in a telephone interview.

Other newspaper chains have tried buying newspapers and imposing a one-size-fits-all template on operations. That's not the Berkshire Hathaway way, Kroeger said.

BH Media Group prefers to buy well-run newspapers and leave the reins in local hands, he said.

"We put a lot of emphasis on trying to hire very capable, hard-working, common-sense publishers, and I think our track record of doing that is very good," Kroeger said. "Those folks put together a team of like-minded people that understand the value of local news, that understand that common sense is not all that common and what we need to do."

In Tulsa, the BH Media Group team will be led by Publisher and President John R. Bair, a 12-year executive with the Tulsa World.

Like Buffett, journalism is Bair's heritage.

"I grew up in the newspaper business," he said.

His father spent more than 46 years in the newspaper business. The family's summer vacations were spent at industry conventions, with the Bair family often staying at the homes of newspaper owners and publishers.

"Those are my memories of childhood, sitting around the kitchen table, having a meal and talking about this industry," Bair said. "We would go to these conventions and I would listen to the people talk about how they passionately serve their communities.

"I am absolutely in love with the idea of stewardship and the role a newspaper can play in the community."

At one point, Bair thought he might have a career as a newspaper reporter. He wrote for his high school and college newspapers, and - while still a student at Southern Methodist University - applied for a job at an alternative weekly newspaper in Dallas.

The editor talked to him for a while and told him she needed him driving a delivery truck more than she needed him writing copy.

"I wanted to be a writer, and I was told that I had other strengths to provide an organization," he said with a laugh.

He drove a pre-dawn delivery route and worked his way into a full-time job in the circulation department. Before he graduated from college, he was the newspaper's circulation manager.

It would be the first of several rapid ascents in his career. He held a series of management posts at Texas newspapers before joining the Tulsa World as circulation director in 2001. In 2003, he was named vice president and general manager of World Publishing. By 2007, he was the company's president and chief operating officer. He was 39 years old.

Now 44, Bair said that while the Lorton family - which has run the Tulsa World for more than 100 years - is leaving the newspaper's ownership, their philosophy is staying.

Years ago, Publisher Eugene Lorton defined what the Tulsa World's agenda should be - Tulsa.

The newspaper would build up what worked in the community and critique what needed improvement but always with an eye toward solutions. That creed remains steadfast, Bair said.

"I think that our mission hasn't changed at all," he said.

Providing strong local content that is relevant to readers has been the secret to the newspaper's success in the past, and it will continue to be so in the future, he said.

"As long as we fulfill that mission, we've got a great future," Bair said.

The Tulsa World is profitable and will remain so for a long time, he said.

If he didn't believe in the future of the Tulsa World and of print journalism in general, Bair said, he would owe it to his family to change career paths.

While continuity is the theme of the BH Media Group transition, Bair said, the newspaper's future will be marked by its ability to adjust to changing circumstances, too.

In the coming weeks, the newspaper will roll out a new digital platform that has been in the works for 18 months.

Bair said he doesn't have a crystal ball to show the newspaper's future, but he has a solid staff, a good market and a willingness to adapt to the changing media world.

"I think the greatest compliment we could have been given was to have an investor of the likes of Warren Buffett place a value on this organization so high that he wanted us in his investment portfolio," Bair said.

He said he's seen and heard a lot of speculation about what Buffett's purchase of the Tulsa World will mean, but he is in a unique position to comment.

"I believe we have found, absent of the Lorton family, the best possible fit for our organization - one that's absolutely committed to providing great journalism to this community," Bair said.

Kroeger said he doesn't anticipate any noticeable changes to the Tulsa World for readers in the near future.

"If that's true, then that's going to be driven by John (Bair) and his team in Tulsa with our support," Kroeger said. "This is going to be more evolution than revolution because, among other things, we have enough respect for readers in Tulsa that we don't want to pull the rug out from under what they're used to."

Kroeger said he is excited about the latest addition to the BH Media family.

"We view it as an honor to own this newspaper, and we're going to do the best we can for (the readers)," he said. "My guess is that some days they'll like us better than others, but John and his team, we're confident, are going to do a great job for them."

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