June 4, 2017

After Five Years It’s Clear, Warren Buffett Isn’t Going To Save The Winston-Salem Journal

Back in May 2012, Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway bought the Winston-Salem Journal and a host of other small and medium-sized papers from Media General. Five years ago there was optimism that Warren Buffett would reinvigorate the Journal. Sadly, five years later, we now know better. Buffett hasn’t invested in our local paper, it’s just another asset to him.

Sunday’s Winston-Salem Journal had an excellent cover story on Kalvin Michael Smith. The print edition displayed a powerful close-up picture of Kalvin Michael Smith staring out into the distance. But read that same article on a phone or tablet and it’s just not the same. The Journal needs to do a better job of adapting its content for mobile devices.

Berkshire Hathaway should have reinvested the $3.1 million that they got when they sold a portion of the Journal’s downtown property into making the Journal’s website more mobile friendly. They have great photographers and some excellent journalists at the Journal. Yet their website is plain and uninspiring. I still subscribe to the print edition because it’s easier to navigate than the Journal’s website.

Layoffs have continued under Berkshire Hathaway and it’s easy to see the toll that they’ve taken. The Journal produces dramatically less content than it used to. More content on a better website could produce community engagement and some advertising revenue for the Journal. I’d like to see the Journal become a platform where more viewpoints are expressed. Scott Sexton isn’t enough. The Journal is stale.

The Journal needs to produce thought-provoking content that gets the city talking. Years ago, the Journal could do that, but not today. When Pheobe Zerwick recently wrote a long article on Darryl Hunt’s last days, she posted it to her website instead of the Journal. She could have broken her story on Hunt into multiple parts and ran it for consecutive days in the Journal, but that’s not what the Journal does anymore.

The Journal isn’t funding investigative reporting the way that it used to. Instead, they’re publishing a magazine and other small publications. The Journal has never been an elite newspaper, but they’ve done great work on Eugenics/sterilizations in Forsyth County, urban renewal, and wrongful convictions.

Instead of investigative work that would cost Berkshire Hathaway money, the Journal rolls out new articles that build on the investigative work they’ve done in the past, such as Sunday’s piece on Kalvin Michael Smith. The Journal needs to do a front-page, multi-part series on John Robert Hayes.

John Robert Hayes is another innocent black man, who like Darryl Hunt and Kalvin Michael Smith was wrongly convicted in Forsyth County of a crime that he did not commit. The Journal’s Michael Hewlitt has written some good articles on Hayes, But the Journal needs to empower Hewitt to write an exhaustive review of the case against Hayes, just like Pheobe Zerwick did when she was at the Journal.

But as long as a penny-pinching billionaire runs the Journal, don’t expect to see the Journal produce the quality or quantity of work that it did years ago. We can only hope that Buffett’s successor at Berkshire invests in Berkshire’s newspapers or sells them. The latter seems most likely. Warren Buffett has shown over the last five years that he’s not a newspaperman. Newspapers are just one more thing that Buffett doesn’t understand.




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