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MARK HOLMBERG: New life for the Times-Dispatch

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) – For months rumors have been flying about the sale of our hometown paper, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, and other properties of the profitable but deeply indebted Media General.

Thursday, the news broke: Warren Buffett and his deep-pocketed and his respected Berkshire Hathaway holdings bought the T-D and 62 other Media General papers for $142 million. That will take the Richmond-based Media General out of danger.

The announcement came almost exactly 20 years after the merger of Richmond’s afternoon paper, The News Leader, with the Times-Dispatch. All of us working there hoped the move would ensure a robust future for the paper as the business entered the world of the web.

But the electronic media changed everything quicker than many expected. There have been a long series of staff cutbacks as the paper continued to shrink to a shadow of itself – as have  papers have across the country.

Morale has been in the basement for years.

Today’s news was greeted with cheers and huge sighs of relief. I’m hearing words like “ecstatic” and “giddy” from my old colleagues, even though management put a gag order on them.

Many believe they got the best-possible buyer.

While many believe papers are rattling in their death throws, the savvy Buffett – who famously delivered papers as a youngster – believes in newspapers that have strong ties to their communities, a compliment to the T-D and the other purchases.

Buffett is also famous for not gutting or radically transforming  the newspapers he buys.

Michael Kelly, a columnist for the formerly employee-owned Omaha World-Herald that Buffett bought last year, told me the biggest change since the buy is an improvement in employee morale.

The T-D, which has roots stretching back 160-plus years, has been owned  the Bryan family for a century. Joseph, John Stewart, D. Tennant and now J. Stewart Bryan loved their paper.

I stopped by J. Stewart Bryan’s house Thursday afternoon and it was easy to see it was  a very heavy day for him.

It’s not that the T-D and most of Media General’s papers weren’t profitable.

There were and still are, although far from the moneymakers they used to be. (In the old days, owning a newspaper was like a license to print money.)

The problem was  Media General’s vast holdings – buildings, property, equipment – and  the debt load that comes with them. The shrinking profitability of newspapers was compounded by the bad economy.

Those who love newspapers and The Times-Dispatch may not see a quick reversal of the trend of shrinking pages, staff and depth of stories, but there is new life in T-D.

That’s good news for those of us who believe a free and vigorous press is the cornerstone of democracy.

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