Column: Tired of waiting for a hero

Aug. 11, 2013 @ 01:01 AM

When we were children and encountered a problem, we went to our parents, and they fixed it.

Parents can fix anything.

As we get older we take on more of our own problems, maybe asking advice. Well into adulthood, it’s hard to shake the urge to at least ask for advice when we come up against a really big problem.

Which leads me to the reaction to Amazon founder Jeffrey Bezos buying the Washington Post.

But first, why should this matter to you, reading this newspaper? Because the business model for the survival of newspapers — and local TV, pretty much all local news — has been contracting over the past five or 10 years. The old business model was to use charge readers a fraction of what it costs to produce the paper in order to build audience, then make all the profits from advertising. But advertising has been migrating to non-news Internet options, and those of us in the news business have been looking for a solution to the problem.

Bezos is hailed as an online innovator, and many people in the news business – including me – hope, believe, pray that Bezos will figure out a way for local news to become solidly and predictably profitable again.

And yet, I can’t help feeling I’ve seen this movie before. It gives me the serious feeling that everyone in the news industry is waiting for Dad to show up and Fix It.

I remember when Sam Zell first bought the Tribune papers in 2007, and some people (not all, by a long shot) thought he might Fix It. He had made a ton of money, so he must know something about business, and maybe a fresh set of eyes and a less hidebound approach would work. Then he started breaking all the good china, stamping out his cigars in the carpeting and insulting his employees, and it was clear that making a ton of money in one business doesn’t necessarily translate into universal business genius. Then the economy imploded, and that was the end of that.

In 2012, Warren Buffett made a splash with a series of newspaper purchases (including the Hickory Daily Record), which has continued into this year, and there seemed to be a giant sigh of relief throughout the industry. The Oracle of Omaha is widely described as a genius, having made shrewd investments across various industries for decades, so surely he must see the way out of the mess we’re in, or once hip deep in the mess he WILL see it. He must have a plan, right? … Well, he has said repeatedly he does not, and so far Mr. Buffett has cut well over 100 jobs (including my former job in Virginia). If his team has created any new jobs or found a new way to increase revenue, I missed it. I currently believe Mr. Buffett: He has no plan.

On the plus side, it must be noted that Buffett thinks that papers like the News-Topic are ideally poised to last for years to come because they are a bit insulated from the worst competitive pressures that big-city dailies like the Charlotte Observer face.

Also in 2012, another very rich man, Aaron Kushner, set journalistic hearts aflutter by doubling down on the old print model, beefing up the Orange County (Calif.) Register’s news staff and cutting off free Internet access. The company claims it is having success, though circulation is flat. But the company has put forth no numbers to show that the massive increase in staff has been matched, let alone exceeded, by new advertising, and the cover price of the paper, $1, can’t come close to covering its expenses. So, the jury has to be considered out on that experiment.

Now comes Bezos. He made a bazillion dollars on the Internet! The Internet is at the heart of the industry’s problems, so he MUST be the man to turn this whole thing around. So many people in this business say so.

I sure hope so, because I’m getting tired of watching this movie, and I can no longer tell whether its title is “Waiting for Superman,” “Waiting for Godot” or “Waiting for Guffman.”