News decisions and editorial policies at the newspapers to be acquired by Berkshire Hathaway Inc. will be controlled by local managers, the head of Berkshire's new community newspaper division said Thursday.
Terry Kroeger, president of BH Media Group and president and CEO of the Omaha World-Herald Co., said he's making that clear during visits Thursday and Friday to the newspaper groups being sold by Media General Inc.
“It is an absolute belief that the best journalism is practiced locally,” he said in a telephone interview. “We have never, nor would we ever, get involved in editorial policy or endorsements or anything like that. That is up to our local management, period.”
Thursday, Berkshire announced that it would buy 63 Media General newspapers, including 17 daily publications, in the Southeast. They would be managed by World Media Enterprises Inc., a new sister company to The World-Herald, with both under the new BH Media division.
Kroeger said the objective is to add the newspapers to Berkshire's ownership in a way “where one plus one equals more than two.”
“We're just getting to know a lot of folks, but the people we've met so far today are nothing short of outstanding, and the management people are terrific to work with,” Kroeger said. “We're delighted with the folks we're meeting out here.”
Douglas Hiemstra, president of World Media and vice president of operations for The World-Herald Co., also is visiting the newspaper offices, along with World-Herald Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Duane Polodna, and Vice President and General Counsel Scott Searl.
Although the papers are in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama and Florida, Hiemstra and Kroeger will continue to be based in Omaha.
“We think it's important to introduce ourselves,” Kroeger said. “We'll be very collegial in our management. We want, first of all, to learn what's going on at these newspapers and learn things that maybe we can help with, and take back with us the things that are going on that can benefit our other newspapers.”
Tom Silvestri, president and publisher of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, said word of the sale spread so quickly that about 150 people, virtually everyone who was at work at 7:30 a.m., went to the lobby to greet the contingent from The World-Herald.
“When they came in the door, we let out this huge cheer,” he said. “We had a sign that said, ‘Welcome, BH Media, start the presses, fire up the future.' Our folks were just happy about it. It was great to see the smiles on our people's faces.”
The World-Herald executives “rang a lot of quality, good bells and were eager to figure it all out,” he said.
“They made a huge impression on our people,” Silvestri said. “They really connected with our folks and stayed around and shook hands. They were inviting and said, ‘We're going to figure this out together.' They said, ‘we don't have all the answers, but we're tickled that we're here.' ”
The purchase is due to be completed June 25. Kroeger said a transition plan is being developed that would take place over the next six months to a year, with a goal to “make things better than we found them. We want to have a good transition. We want the employees to be happy, and we want the communities to be happy.”
The Media General newspapers fit well with existing World-Herald newspapers, he said. The Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch, with a weekday circulation of 114,000, is the largest.
“What we've got here is a group of what really is in our sweet spot, which is community newspapers,” Kroeger said. “Richmond and Omaha are large community newspapers that are very plugged into what's going on in their communities. That's what really makes for great journalism and great newspapers. These newspapers are very, very integrated parts of their communities.”
He said he has no immediate plans for changes. “What we're going to do is work with local management to figure out what makes the most sense.”
For example, he said, Media General's newspaper and TV properties used many “shared services,” centralizing functions for both types of businesses. The “transition task” includes separating some of those functions into “a broadcast home or a print home.”
Some Media General newspapers have combined some of their functions, such as editing stories or designing pages, at central locations rather than separately for each paper.
“That's not going away. We have no plans to eliminate that,” he said. Similar steps might be possible with other newspapers owned by the World-Herald, “but there's no plan that way, either. First we need to understand how that process and other processes work and what would make sense for all of our newspapers.”
He said it's possible that BH Media and World Media Enterprises would need to add “some capable hands,” since he and Hiemstra are keeping their World-Herald responsibilities.
If people are added, he said, “some of them may come from the Media General side, some may come from other places. We're not a big corporate staff organization.”
Before being bought by Berkshire Hathaway, the World-Herald had sold newspapers that it owned in Stockton, Calif. and Ames, Iowa. In 2008, it purchased the Grand Island (Neb.) Independent and York (Neb.) News-Times.
Kroeger said the Stockton sale was driven by an opportunity to sell and the World-Herald's need for capital, and the Ames newspaper was a better fit for its buyer.
“This (Media General) is a deal that came about as an opportunity related to something that the Berkshire folks were discussing with Media General and made good sense,” Kroeger said. “A part of any acquisition is opportunity, and these really are terrific newspapers in terrific markets.”
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