As a longtime observer of business leaders, and a terrible personal investor, I'm a huge admirer of those who see opportunity where mortals see doom. The smart ones bought stock in Boeing or Apple before turnarounds took hold. They convert dilapidated buildings into desirable office space. They buy money-losing companies and turn them into winners. Who knows? Maybe they're now buying distressed mortgage companies.
So consider a 61-year-old Canadian named David Black, who's heard tales about the slow, painful death of newspapers, the supposed dinosaurs in the age of the Internet, and he's the happy guy at the funeral. From his office in Victoria, B.C., Black has been steadily putting money into newspapers and their future. Others may be closing or selling; he's buying or starting papers. And you wonder, what does he see that most everybody is missing?
If Black is wrong, someone ought to tell him he can't afford his 77-foot yacht and one of British Columbia's most celebrated homes. Today, Black may own more newspapers and related publications than anyone else in Washington. How many in Puget Sound? "About 60," he says, noting that he just launched two weeklies serving Issaquah and Sammamish. His papers reach 1 million households in Western Washington. Altogether, his Black Press Ltd. publishes 175 dailies, community papers, Little Nickel shoppers, and Web sites. It's a Victoria-based communications empire that includes holdings in British Columbia, Hawaii, and Ohio, and 4,000 employees, all run out of a 1910 mansion called Riffington, which Black once referred to as a "nice, old pile of rock."
Black started small. He grew up in Williams Lake, a small British Columbia lumber town that calls itself the hub of the Cariboo region. After earning an M.B.A. and working as a business analyst for the Toronto Star, he returned home and spent a reported $6,000 to buy the local weekly from his father. He was 29. Three years later, he bought a second weekly, then a printing company, then other papers served by the printing company. For a long time, Black bought little publications that never got a panelist on Meet the Press, but earned nice profits. Later, he took bigger gulps, buying the Akron Beacon Journal and the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.
In a conversation over the phone, I told Black that he reminded me of another entrepreneur who started very small in Winlock, Wash., and who built an empire by buying mom-and-pop cable TV companies before moving to paging and mobile phones – Craig McCaw. But Black would have no such comparison. "Craig McCaw's brilliant. We're not brilliant here." Okay, but I see a few things in common: a talented leader who professes to do something simple over and over, a fierce competitor who may be underestimated by rivals, and a hugely successful businessman who doesn't want a high profile. Another similarity is a contrarian's viewpoint.
The Star-Bulletin is an example, a paper so hopeless that for a long time it couldn't find a buyer. Nobody wanted a money loser that competed with Gannett, the biggest player in the business. Except for Black, who paid $10,000 for the Star-Bulletin when it had no press, no building, no carriers, no advertising department, not even a telephone. The paper had 80 reporters and editors whose work was published in an expiring joint operating agreement with the Honolulu Advertiser, Gannett's paper. Black also bought a press and a paper called MidWeek that was distributed free to every home on the island of Oahu.
To gain insight into Black's business strategy, stop on that phrase "every home." While most newspaper publishers traditionally try to sell their product, and get by largely on advertising revenue and a household "penetration" of 20 percent or so of a given market, Black often gives away his papers and makes it up from advertisers who are attracted to his saturation of households. "Our game is to get on every doorstep," he says. In some markets, his paper reaches 90 percent of households. Black didn't invent the idea of market saturation, but he does it well, thanks to a focus on keeping costs low and spreading press costs across multiple publications. He employed the same tactic on the Eastside of Lake Washington when he bought King County Journal Newspapers. He closed the company's money-losing daily and expanded the roster of community newspapers to 12 distinct publications, nine of them free.
Black is a feared competitor. He'll cut ad rates to grab business. He often reduces staff or lowers pay. No doubt, his critics would call him a bottom feeder, an enemy of quality journalism. And yet, as a personality, he is widely described as softspoken and pleasant. Nothing about his manner suggests the guts and drive that built so much, so fast, in an industry where many now feel something close to despair. When he speaks, it's plain vanilla. What's his secret? "We look at opportunities we can afford. When prices come down, that makes it a little bit easier."
See what I mean? A guy who sees what others miss doesn't have to talk fancy. "Business is an interesting game," he says. Especially if you're winning.
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