Billionaire Warren Buffett is giving up on the newspaper business. He's selling all of Berkshire Hathaway's publications to Lee Enterprises for $140 million. That includes The Winston-Salem Journal and the News & Record of Greensboro.
The deal announced Wednesday covers 31 daily newspapers. BH Media owns four other North Carolina papers, all are west of the Triad: The News & Herald of Morganton; The McDowell News in Marion; The Statesville Record and Landmark and The Hickory Daily Record.
Buffett is a lifelong fan of newspapers but he has said for several years that he expects most of them to continue on their declining trajectory, save for a handful of national papers such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
The deal covers 31 daily newspapers in 10 states as well as 49 paid weekly publications with digital sites and 32 other print products. As part of the agreement, Lee will enter into a 10-year lease for BH Media's real estate.
Lee has been managing the BH Media publications since July 2018. Analyst Ken Doctor, who writes the Newsonomics blog, said this sale is a logical step for Berkshire after hiring Lee to manage most of its papers.
"That was a first step in gaining some efficiency of scaled management. Further, it was a clear acknowledgment by Warren Buffett, a longtime major supporter the press, that he no longer believed the print newspaper business could be turned around," Doctor said.
Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst with The Poynter Institute, said this deal reinforces that the newspaper industry is out of favor with most investors.
"It's a further unfortunate event for an industry that's already been having a lot of tough times," Edmonds said.
The deal will increase Lee's size significantly. The company said its portfolio will grow to 81 daily papers and nearly double its audience size. The deal is expected to close in mid-March.
"This is a compelling and transformative transaction for Lee," said Mary Junck, Lee's chairman. "It both refinances our long-term debt on attractive terms and provides new revenue opportunities as well as operational synergies across an expanded portfolio."
Buffett, Berkshire's chairman and CEO, said he and his partner, Charlie Munger, have long admired Lee.
"We had zero interest in selling the group to anyone else for one simple reason: We believe that Lee is best positioned to manage through the industry's challenges," Buffett said.
Newspapers make up a small part of Berkshire Hathaway, which owns an assortment of more than 90 companies and holds major investments in companies like Coca-Cola Co., Apple, and Wells Fargo.
"I think Buffett is trying to clean some things up. These little pieces aren't worth his time," said Andy Kilpatrick, who wrote "Of Permanent Value: The Story of Warren Buffett."
Berkshire Hathaway is providing about $576 million in long-term, 9% financing to Lee, which it will use to pay for the Berkshire properties and refinance Lee's approximately $400 million in existing debt. Berkshire will be Lee's sole lender after the deal closes.
Lee said it expects to eliminate about $20 million in annual costs as part of the deal primarily by cutting administrative expenses at the newspapers. Lee said it also expects to increase revenue by about $5 million by focusing on growing digital revenue and changes to subscription pricing.