How Omaha World-Herald staffers learned of the Buffett deal

About 275 Omaha World-Herald shareholders — including 80 to 100 newsroom employees — were told to gather at 9 a.m. Wednesday at the performing arts center next to the newspaper’s offices. There was a lot of speculation — “some serious and some humorous,” says executive editor Mike Reilly — about what would be announced. Nobody guessed, though, that Warren Buffett was buying the paper.

“The initial reaction was shock,” Reilly tells me. “This came as a total surprise to everyone outside of the corporate board of directors.”

Buffett then took the stage and got a standing ovation.

The editor, who learned of the deal on Tuesday afternoon, returned to his newsroom and held meetings with staffers on Wednesday afternoon and evening. He says they asked about benefits under the new owner, and how the World-Herald would now cover Buffett.

“We’re going to try to keep covering him just as we have,” says Reilly. “We cover the heck out of him.”

The World-Herald runs a weekly “Warren Watch” column and “it is our plan at this time to continue it.”

Reilly says he’s happy about the sale because it involves local owners — “it’s not Murdoch, we’re not becoming a Gannett property” — and it solves the employee-ownership problem.

Employee ownership was no longer effective, he says, because 95 percent of the newspaper’s shares are owned by people 45 and older, and “because of the way the media environment has changed, there just hasn’t been a lot of interest in our younger staffers to become owners.”

That issue is mentioned in today’s World-Herald story on the sale:

The World-Herald is the last major employee-owned newspaper in the country.
But despite the paper’s profit margins, The World-Herald also faced long-term financial challenges directly tied to its employee-owned structure. Longtime employees who have accumulated significant shares of stock are approaching retirement, and fewer younger workers have been buying into the company.

“Getting that [ESOP problem] off the table, I think, will give us more operating cash to build a staff of great journalists,” says Reilly.

Will some newsroom employees become millionaires with the sale? “I won’t be surprised,” says the executive editor, adding that “I’m not one of them.”