In the ongoing debate over the underlying value of newspapers, the focus has most often been on the struggles of the large daily papers. (The Boston Globe, The Times-Picayune, and The Chicago Tribune are all examples of papers that have had their troubles.)
It’s true the valuations for the big dailies have fallen. For proof, look no further than the nearly $200 million loss The Seattle Times Co. is estimated to have suffered when it sold its Maine newspapers — the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel — to MaineToday Media in 2009.
While the big sprawling dailies may be struggling, investors have begun looking at their smaller brethren in search of opportunities. And many, including Warren Buffett, like what they see. Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. last year purchased 25 small daily newspapers for $142 million in cash.
The takeaway: Hyper-local news is still valuable.
So, it wasn’t a surprise to see a column published on TheStreet.com that singles out The Lincoln County News, a weekly newspaper based in Newcastle, as an example of how a small-town newspaper remains viable in the Internet age. (To be honest, it wasn’t a surprise because I recently met the column’s author, Jonathan Blum, so knew he was working on it.)
“Sherwood Olin” — editor of The Lincoln County News — “has apparently cracked the code for building a news business in this crumbling digital age,” writes Blum, who occasionally visits Maine because of family connections.
Olin told me on Monday that the credit should actually go to Chris Roberts, the fourth-generation owner of the newspaper. The Roberts family has owned the paper since 1920, according to Olin.
The broadsheet newspaper caught Blum’s eye — not surprising given how rare those are these days — during one of his trips to Maine. What better subject for a column called “The Digital Skeptic” than a newspaper that still publishes a seven-column-wide printed edition, is hyper-focused on news in a single Maine county (“If the pope is on a plane that crashes one foot outside Lincoln County, its not news,” Olin told me Monday), and doesn’t worry itself with pursuing the latest digital platform the media world is hyping? The newspaper does, though, have a website.
“The secrets to media success these days?” Asks Blum. “Never mind talk at media giants such as Gannett scoring this or that paid-content play online. What makes real money these days is keeping it small, keeping it local, ignoring the Web and not sweating falling circulation.”
Blum’s conclusion: “For investors looking for a rare upside in today’s confused information economy, kicking it old-school and seeking out news, printed on paper for a targeted market turns out to be as good a bet as you can take.”
While Olin was happy the paper was profiled on TheStreet.com, he doesn’t think it’s doing anything that community newspapers around the country aren’t doing.
“We’re a community newspaper, and that’s what’s protecting us,” Olin said Monday.
The Bangor Daily News, for example, is a great paper, Olin said, but it doesn’t have the resources to have a reporter at every town council meeting in Wiscasset and Damariscotta and be immersed in the local communities. That’s where The Lincoln County News can shine. “Frankly, I’ve very proud of this newspaper,” he said.
Blum’s column may have raised The Lincoln County News’ visibility outside Lincoln County, but as of Monday Olin said no rich investors have made offers for the paper.
“None that I know of,” he said with a laugh, “but the story only came out last week.”