World-Herald purchase is Buffett's style, will help innovation, say UNL experts

Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s pending purchase of the Omaha World-Herald Co. is true to CEO Warren Buffett’s investment style and should signal an era of innovation in its halls, a pair of UNL scholars said.

“The purchase seems like a natural fit,” said Donna Dudney, associate professor of finance at UNL who researches and teaches a College of Business Administration course on Buffett’s investing behavior. “Buffett has frequently said he is interested in purchasing companies that are understandable and within his circle of competence … Buffett certainly understands this business and knows how to analyze the value of the World-Herald.”

Buffett also looks for companies with a durable competitive advantage, Dudney said, which certainly made the newspaper company attractive to him.

“The World-Herald is in the top 10 of newspapers in the country in terms of the percentage of subscribing households in its market and its digital news site dominates the Omaha market,” she said. “While nationally the newspaper industry faces substantial challenges, the World-Herald has a sustainable niche as the dominant provider of local and regional news in Nebraska.”

The deal, which will give Berkshire Hathaway control of the World-Herald, six daily newspapers and a number of weeklies in Nebraska and southwest Iowa, was announced Nov. 30. The proposed sellers are employee shareholders and the Peter Kiewit Foundation.

Dudney said she the most surprising aspect about this acquisition was its small size. The performance of the World-Herald, even if is exceptional, will likely not move the needle on the performance of Berkshire Hathaway, she said.

“However, it is an investment that is right in Buffett’s backyard, with management that Buffett knows and likes. My guess is that Buffett liked the fundamentals of the company and was able to purchase the company at a very attractive price,” Dudney said.

Gary Kebbel, dean of UNL’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications, said the move strengthens the World-Herald because it won’t have to worry as much about its capital needs for expansion, improvement and innovation.

“This development gives the World-Herald a huge opportunity to extend its brand to all distribution platforms — even ones that haven’t been invented yet — because they’ll have the resources to do so,” Kebbel said.

He said questions about what the acquisition may mean to the World-Herald’s newsroom, or to the newspaper’s tone, coverage or editorial positions are easily answered.

“If you’re wondering how this might change the World-Herald, my advice would be to look at his other similar holdings, the Washington Post and the Buffalo News,” Kebbel said. “Has he interfered in those newsrooms? The answer is an unequivocal no.”

And one of the most important things about the purchase, Kebbel said, is that the World-Herald will remain in local hands.

“What we know about the newspaper industry in general is that community news is in very high demand. Those locally owned newspapers that are delivering information about their communities and their communities' needs have been stronger in comparison to large metropolitan papers that have weaker community ties,” Kebbel said. “By their nature, metros have not been able to create as strong of community ties, particularly in tight geographic areas.”

— Steve Smith, University Communications