Simon Kelner: Buffett's words are food for thought for journalists

 

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Warren Buffett is responsible for some of the best aphorisms about the world of business. “Wall Street is the place that people ride in a Rolls Royce to get advice from those who take the subway,” is one of his.

As is the brilliant, much-quoted and evocative saying about the aftermath of a crash: "Only when the tide goes out do you know who's been swimming naked." Virtually everything he says is noteworthy. He's a man who can move markets with the merest nod of assent or a crinkle of his brow. But he didn't get where he is today without being able to change his mind (as we saw with George Osborne and the Cornish pasties, the volte face is a recognised procedure these days).

It has surprised many observers that Buffett has just spent quite a lot of his company's money on buying a group of local newspapers. As recently as 2009, the Sage of Omaha couldn't have been clearer about the prospects for the printed press. Even though he has always proclaimed a fondness for newspapers (his first job was as a paper boy) and says that he still reads five a day, he envisaged a bleak future. "For most newspapers in the US, we would not buy them at any price. They have the possibility of nearly unending losses," he said back then. "I do not see anything on the horizon that sees that erosion coming to an end." In business, it seems, a horizon may not stretch that far.

Only a couple of weeks ago, the same Buffett, the man who has made billions with a history of disciplined investment, bought a chain of 63 papers in backwater towns in the US and said this: "In towns and cities where there is a strong sense of community, there is no more important institution than the local paper." He went on to say "the economics will be OK, but it will be nothing like the old days". I am the last person to argue with Buffett – I have never bought a stock or share in my life, preferring to make more sensible investments on the racetrack or at the roulette wheel – and I can only hope that, at 81, he hasn't reached an age where his heart is overruling his head. Whether the economics stack up is one thing, but he is surely right about the central role a paper plays in a community, both as town crier and as an overseer of local politics. In Britain, we have lost untold numbers of local papers and we are undoubtedly worse off as a result. This weekend there will be all manner of events to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. People will be engaging with a wider community, whether it be a street, a town or indeed the country as a whole. In an age where we lead complicated, individualistic lives full of choice and distraction, the desire to connect with those around us assumes greater importance. This may be the seam that Warren Buffett is mining. I hope that – not for the first time – he's proved right.

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