Buffett's BH Media Group will purchase the newspaper from Landmark Media Enterprises, the companies announced Thursday. The sale is effective at midnight tonight.
The Roanoke Times joins a growing number of Virginia daily newspapers -- including those in Bristol, Charlottesville, Danville, Lynchburg and Richmond -- to be acquired in recent years by BH Media, a wholly owned subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
Officials with the Omaha, Neb.-based company, in town for Thursday's announcement, said readers should notice little difference in the paper's day-to-day content.
"On Day One, other than there being a story about the paper being sold, they're not going to see any difference," said Terry Kroeger, CEO of BH Media Group.
There was one major change, however. Roanoke Times Publisher Debbie Meade announced her early retirement at the same time the sale was disclosed to the company's approximately 300 employees. Meade has served as publisher since 2007.
Terry Jamerson, operating vice president of BH Media's Virginia Community Newspaper group, will take over as publisher. Until Thursday, Jamerson had been publisher of the News & Advance in Lynchburg.
The sale price of the newspaper, which according to the Alliance for Audited Media has an average daily circulation of 67,000 and 85,000 on Sundays, was not disclosed.
Thursday's announcement comes at a time when newsrooms across the country are facing declining print readership and shrinking advertising revenue, which in turn has led to staffing reductions in many places. In some major cities such as New Orleans and Detroit, daily newspapers have downsized to the point of no longer publishing seven days a week.
BH Media officials said that is not on the horizon for Roanoke.
While newspapers may have lost their "primacy" to television, the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle, they remain a fundamental part of their communities, Buffett wrote in Berkshire Hathaway's most recent annual report to shareholders.
"Newspapers continue to reign supreme ... in the delivery of local news," he wrote.
"If you want to know what's going on in your town -- whether the news is about the mayor or taxes or high school football -- there is no substitute for a local newspaper that is doing its job.
"A reader's eyes may glaze over after they take in a couple of paragraphs about Canadian tariffs or political developments in Pakistan; a story about the reader himself or his neighbors will be read to the end."
Kroeger emphasized the importance of delivering news not only through traditional methods, but through digital media. The Roanoke Times launched the redesigned roanoke.com earlier this year.
BH Media owns 28 daily newspapers and other weekly papers in Nebraska, Iowa, Texas, Oklahoma, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama and Florida.
The Roanoke Times had been for sale, on and off, for the past five years.
In January 2008, Landmark Communications , then the parent company of the newspaper, announced that it had hired national investment firms to explore selling the Norfolk-based company, including its newspapers in Roanoke, Norfolk and Greensboro, N.C.
The recession prompted Landmark to take the newspapers off the market in October 2008.
Then, late last year, BH Media was approached by an industry broker about buying The Roanoke Times, Kroeger said.
Frank Batten Jr., Landmark chairman and CEO, said he is confident the newspaper is in good hands.
"Of the people who are buying newspapers now, I think Berkshire is the best home for The Roanoke Times," Batten said. The purchase was debt-free, and all indications are that BH Media does not intend to resell the paper, Batten said.
"They're hard-nosed business people like everybody else," he said of BH Media. "But I think they understand the value and the role of newspapers."
BH Media bought the Greensboro News & Record in January; The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk is still owned by Landmark.
The Roanoke Times is one of the major employers in the Roanoke Valley, and its sale is an indication of its continued strength, said Joyce Waugh, president and CEO of the Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce.
"With this being a Warren Buffett-owned company, he has the reputation of picking winners, if you will," Waugh said.
"While we won't know for years down the road what this means for our community, I think that bodes well," she said.
Questions about whether staffing levels might change were largely deflected by BH Media officials, who said those decisions will be made at the local level.
One immediate benefit for The Roanoke Times will be the ability to carry news stories from its partner BH Media newspapers in the western half of the state.
And while the newspaper recently closed its one-reporter Richmond bureau, it now can join forces with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, whose editor made the trip to Roanoke for Thursday's announcement.
"It's a statehouse paper that we can tap into, and that's a huge gain for us," Roanoke Times Editor Carole Tarrant said.
As for the day-to-day decisions on news stories and editorial philosophy, BH Media officials stressed that those will continue to be made at the local level.
"That's just not our style," Kroeger said of the possibility of sweeping change directed from corporate headquarters.
"The best decisions about journalism are made locally," Kroeger said. "We have no interest in dictating what happens with news coverage in Roanoke."
As a private company, Landmark does not release details about its finances. But the sale reinforces prior statements that the newspaper remains profitable, Tarrant said -- and that the area it serves is thriving.
"This is an endorsement not just for the newspaper company, but for the community at large," she said.
Meade said while she will miss the colleagues she's worked with over three decades at The Times, she understands BH's decision.
"The timing is good for me," she said. Her first grandchild, Emily, is a year old and lives in California, so the opportunity for more and longer visits -- with fewer interruptions from work -- is a welcome change, she said.
And she never wanted to feel like she stuck around in the job too long. "I think it's better to go out on top," she said.
Staff writer Matt Chittum contributed to this report.
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