Why Would Anyone Invest in Print Media?

For many business people, the cache of a newspaper trumps profits.

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By SHARE

The only thing in common among the crowd of people buying up media properties – among them, a baseball team owner, a young tech entrepreneur, a middle-aged tech entrepreneur, a grocery distribution tycoon, and the most well-known investor in the country – is that they've made much of their money in other industries.

[READ: Inside the Washington Post Sale to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos]

Jeff Bezos, who announced Monday he would buy the Washington Post for $250 million, is also CEO of Amazon and is worth $25 billion. John Henry, who is buying the Boston Globe for $70 million, owns the Boston Red Sox and Liverpool Football Club. John Georges, who bought the Baton Rouge-based Advocate this year, is at the helm of a corporation that includes a grocery distributorship and several other ventures. Philip Anschutz, who in 2005 started the Washington Examiner (until recently, a daily newspaper) and bought print magazine Weekly Standard in 2009, started in the oil and rail business and now owns a wide variety of companies. Chris Hughes, who bought The New Republic earlier this year, is a Facebook cofounder. And Warren Buffett, who continues to rapidly add to his long list of newspapers and web sites, is Warren Buffett.

Those rich men, along with many other media business buyers, are also similar in that they've waded into a very tough industry. Bezos will get a newspaper that has posted a 44 percent drop in operating revenue in the last six years. Henry is buying the Globe for $70 million, a small fraction of the $1.1 billion the New York Times Company paid for it 20 years ago.

Financial troubles are an industry-wide problem as the Internet eats away at print publications' revenues. According to the Pew Research Center, newspapers lost 15 advertising dollars on the print side for every digital advertising dollar they gained in 2012.

It may be that these businesspeople all believe they have the long-sought secret to making the news profitable again. But the answer seems far more complicated. Already financially stable and wielding diverse business holdings, these people arguably have the stability to purchase and transform businesses whose ledgers are shaky. Or, put more succinctly, they're in it for something more ephemeral than dollars and cents.

[POLL: Majority of Americans Don’t Trust Newspapers]

"I don't think they're being flip about it. Because people who are wealthy, they're not flip about any decision that they make. I think they're getting into it for the power of the press," says Lou Ann Sabatier, a former media consultant and current CEO of MediaDC, which publishes the Washington Examiner, Weekly Standard, and Red Alert Politics.

That power can come in the form of writing the occasional strongly worded editorial or getting talking-head spots on CNN, but it more importantly comes in the form being associated with the most trusted brands in America.

"They're just proud to have that as part of their portfolio because of what it represents," says Sabatier. "It's the one thing that you can't manufacture. ... It took many, many years to earn the reputation or stature or legacy of the Globe or the L.A. Times or the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post."

Hughes echoed that sentiment in a piece this week about the Washington Post sale.

"I'm guessing that Bezos understands an old truism: brands matter. The wonder and magic of institutions like the Post or The New Republic is their history—their stories track the American story," he wrote.

Likewise, Berkshire Hathaway Chairman and CEO Buffett has explained that he and his vice chairman, Charlie Munger, maintain less stringent standards for their newspaper purchases than for other companies.

"Charlie and I love newspapers and, if their economics make sense, will buy them even when they fall far short of the size threshold we would require for the purchase of, say, a widget company," wrote Buffett in a letter to investors this year. With the sale of the Washington Post, Berkshire Hathaway's 28 percent stake in the paper will come to an end, and Buffett's company will gain over $50 million.