Huffpost Media
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Tim Giago Headshot

Touching an Eagle Feather to the Brow of Warren Buffett

Posted: Updated:

The Associated Press article began with "Billionaire Warren Buffett's company is making another foray into newspapers, agreeing to buy 63 newspapers from Media General Inc. for $142 million."

For the many folks who still believe in newspapers, as owners or readers, there was a collective sigh of relief. Buffett purchased his hometown's paper, the Omaha World-Herald in December and is also the largest shareholder in The Washington Post with a 23 percent stake.

The current belief that newspapers are headed for the woodpile is a mixed bag. Some have failed, i.e., Tucson Citizen, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and the Rocky Mountain News. But others that hit on hard times over the past 10 years are recovering and growing stronger.

According to AP, Buffet has defended newspapers by saying that they will have a decent future if they continue delivering information that can't be found elsewhere. And he also said something I have been preaching for the past four years." They also need to stop offering news free online."

I have been writing the same thing for the past four years oftentimes using the weekly newspaper I started four years ago, Native Sun News, as an example. When I started NSN, even some of my best friends thought I was losing it. The comment I heard the most was, "Newspapers are dying so why are you starting one now?"

Well, I decided from day one not to put NSN online as such. I set up a webpage, www.nsweekly.com, that only displayed the front page and the editorial and the accompanying cartoon. It was what we in the newspaper business know as a "teaser."

Going into its fourth year, the Native Sun News start-up is now the largest weekly newspaper in South Dakota and what's more, it is still growing. I attribute that success story to the fact that we did not give the paper away free online and when I preached about this fact, the larger daily newspapers not only laughed it off, but they continued to grow their online paper to the detriment of their printed edition.

The engine that keeps a newspaper running is advertising. Circulation helps financially in a small way, but the main contribution circulation makes is that it gives the advertising sales department the ammunition to sell more advertising. The big advertisers look at the numbers. If a newspaper can show sufficient circulation numbers it is more apt to attract advertisers. The huge sums that newspapers like The New York Times used to garner from advertising full page ads fell dramatically when those same ads were offered online.

Buffett said newspapers would have a decent future "if they continue delivering information that can't be found elsewhere." There is another reason NSN keeps moving forward: The nine Indian reservations served by NSN are not as heavily involved in the Internet as other places, partly because of the relative isolation of the reservations and partly because some communication companies are reluctant to invest in providing more Internet service to the reservations.

There is no home delivery of mail to most residents of Indian reservations like the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota so most residents go to their local Post Office in their communities and while they are in town they go to their local gas stations, grocery and fast food stores where they pick up a few goodies and their weekly newspaper.

And because Native Sun News offers information that can't be found elsewhere, it is not only read extensively by the tribal leaders, but it is used as an educational tool in most of the schools located on the Indian reservations.

Now that Warren Buffett has offered his most knowledgeable opinion about newspapers giving away their stories free online, perhaps some of the larger daily newspapers will perk up their ears and listen to a foregone conclusion we offered four years ago even while we watched some dailies shuttering their newsrooms.

I am a member of the older generation that grew up reading newspapers. Buffett said, "In towns and cities where there is a strong sense of community, there is no more important institution than the local paper." The newspaper I started 31 years ago, Indian Country Today, and sold to the Oneida Nation of New York State, has been converted to a weekly magazine. It moved its headquarters from the Oneida Nation to New York City. The impact it had as a weekly newspaper is gone and its introduction as a successful weekly magazine has yet to be realized.

My friend Tom Arviso, Navajo, continues to run one of the most successful Native American newspapers in America, The Navajo Times. Covering the 25,000 square miles that make up the Navajo Nation, the weekly Navajo Times is filled with advertising and with stories that lend "a strong sense of community."

Arviso and I touch an eagle feather to the brow of Mr. Buffett and because he has been right more often than wrong, his words of wisdom will be framed and hung from the walls of Native Sun News and the Navajo Times and we hope on the walls of The New York Times.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born and educated on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was founder of the Native American Journalists Association and of Indian Country Today newspaper. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991.