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A new form of ostentation

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THE FINE PRINT: Is newspaper ownership coming a full circle?

Is there anything more forlorn than the American metropolitan newspaper? First readers began deserting in droves, then the advertisers followed. Family owners headed for the exits and then hedge funds and other financial players scooped up newspapers thinking they were buying at the bottom of the market. Greater fools came and went, each saying they could cut their way to former glory and renewed profitability. They got a haircut instead.

Many smaller community newspapers remain stable and newspapers with a large national footprint have generally done better. But quite a few of the midsize regional and metropolitan dailies that form the core of the industry have gone off a cliff: over all, the newspaper industry is half as big as it was seven years ago.

So if most newspapers are an uneconomical proposition incapable of sustaining profits, let alone pay off the debt so many buyers have larded on them, who is left to own them?
Rich guys.

Not the merely well off, but the kind of men with who long ago separated themselves from humdrum economic realities of life. Sure there are other expensive hobbies, but how many antique cars or 19th-century landscapes can you own? Newspapers may be short on profits, but they have become a new form of ostentation.

At the end of last year, Warren Buffett bought The Omaha World-Herald through his company, Berkshire Hathaway. This would be the same Buffett who told his annual shareholder meeting in 2009 that newspapers faced "unending losses" and that he would not buy most of them "at any price. " Yet there he was, ponying up $200 million for a small regional newspaper in Berkshire Hathaway's hometown.

And he is not alone. Douglas F Manchester, a very rich developer, bought The San Diego Union Tribune at about the same time, for a reported $110 million. At the end of last month, S Donald Sussman, a hedge fund manager and philanthropist who is married to a congresswoman, Chellie Pingree, bought a stake in the company that owns The Portland Press Herald in Maine.

And then word came at the beginning of last week that a group of very rich, very influential Philadelphia businessmen - including George E Norcross III, a Democratic power broker in Southern New Jersey, and Lewis Katz, the parking magnate - bought the Philadelphia Media Network, which owns The Inquirer, The Daily News and Philly. com.

Does all this smart money see something the rest of us have failed to? Some hidden riches in these distressed assets? No. In each instance, the buyer was motivated, at least in part, by the fact that the newspapers faced an existential threat: but for the new owners and their deep pockets, they might go away.

If you pull back a few thousand feet, you can see newspapers coming full circle. Before World War II, newspapers were mostly owned by political and business interests who used them to push an agenda. It was only when newspapers began making all kinds of money in the postwar era that they were professionalised and infused with editorial standards.

"We are going back to a form of ownership that dominated in an earlier era, " said Alan D Mutter, a newspaper and technology consultant. "As newspapers become less impressive businesses, people are going to buy them as trophies or bully pulpits or some other form of personal expression. "

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