Ride through downtown, past the Old Guilford County Courthouse and under the 21-story Lincoln Financial tower, and there it sits: a 158,000-square-foot monument to Brutalist architecture, all sharp angles and skinny windows.
“News & Record, Greensboro, North Carolina,” the sign out front of 200 East Market Street declares, though the paper hasn’t been there for two years.
The building is part eyesore, part health hazard. Squatters called dibs just weeks after the paper left, smashing glass door panes to occupy a building with no power or running water. Since then, police have arrested at least nine people for breaking in, and filed three arson reports. The first-floor windows are periodically boarded up with plywood, as they are today. Piles of half-eaten fast food often clutter entryways, attracting an alarming number of rats.
The building’s owner is the world’s fifth-richest man: Warren Buffett. BH Media, a division of Berkshire Hathaway, famously dabbled in news in the 2010s before selling the News & Record and its other holdings to Iowa-based Lee Enterprises in 2020. But BH Media hung onto the 6.6 valuable acres, which are now on the market for $11 million.
In arrest reports, some Greensboro police officers have charitably referred to Buffett’s building as a “commercial office.” Others have called it what it is: abandoned.
The News & Record, too, has been abandoned, mostly due to decisions made after BH Media bought the paper in 2013. At that time, it employed 23 journalists. Today, just six are left to cover the news in a city of 300,000. Once-robust bureaus in High Point, Asheboro, and Eden have shuttered. There’s still a copy desk, but it designs and edits pages for multiple newspapers each night, with fewer and fewer eyeballs checking for errors in local articles.
In 2020, the paper left the imposing headquarters downtown, trading proximity to City Hall for a rental off the interstate, just across from Big Tex Trailers and a discount furniture outlet.
The paper is still published seven days a week, with as daily circulation of 21,510 as of 2021. But many editions contain so few pages, subscribers joke that a stiff wind might blow it from their yards.
“There are days when you open up the paper and find no original reporting,” said Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan. “Stories are being generated, good and bad. None of them are being covered.”
“I get the News & Record online so I can read the obituaries,” said Tom Phillips, who, as a member of the Greensboro City Council in the 1990s and 2000s, consumed the paper voraciously. “There’s generally nothing else in there of interest, or I’ve seen it days before from other news sources.”
“The sort of high-value, high-falutin’ power of journalism is missing from this community in a lot of ways,” said Ed Cone, a former business journalist for New York-based publications who lives in Greensboro and a descendent of the city’s prominent textile barons and philanthropists. “There’s also a lack of community because there’s no town square anymore.”
“The News & Record was a wonderful, productive organization done in by greedy hedge funds that only want to plunder assets,” said Milton Kern, who owns several buildings in downtown Greensboro and helped spur its revitalization.
To be fair, the News & Record’s troubles didn’t begin when beaming BH Media CEO Terry Kroeger dropped in from Omaha, Nebraska, to tell editors that life under Buffett would be like winning the lottery. Mid-size dailies across the U.S. had struggled for a decade before then, staffing their newsrooms at levels more typical of community weeklies.
And those changes, which show little regard for the media’s role as community watchdog, are having disastrous effects on American democracy.
According to a study released in June, newspapers are shutting down at a rate of two a week, leaving one-fifth of the U.S. population with limited-to-no access to local news. In these so-called news deserts, corruption increases and voting decreases. Citizens are less engaged, more susceptible to misinformation, and more likely to fall on extreme ends of the political spectrum.
Greensboro isn’t a news desert, despite the paper’s retreat as the region’s primary source of news. But few print dailies, at least in North Carolina, have cut their way to irrelevance as brazenly as the News & Record has under BH Media and current owner Lee Enterprises.
In December, Toyota announced that it would build a $1.3 billion, 1,700-job battery factory on the Guilford/Randolph County line. Less than two months later, supersonic jet-maker Boom Technology said it would build a factory at Greensboro’s airport, adding another 1,700 jobs. It should have been the local newspaper’s time to shine.
“There was more coverage of Toyota and Boom in the News & Observer than the News & Record,” Vaughan said, referring to the paper 75 miles away in Raleigh.
How did officials with Lee react upon learning that the mayor of North Carolina’s third-largest city believes her local paper is M.I.A.? I can’t tell you, because there’s no one in the area with enough authority to speak on the paper’s behalf, and officials with Lee have been unwilling to.
There’s also no executive editor. In February, Lee laid off Andy Morrissey, editor of the News & Record and the Winston-Salem Journal, another Lee-owned paper in the Triad. He hasn’t been replaced.
There’s not even a local publisher. After the departure of North Carolina regional publisher Alton Brown in April, print editions of the News & Record listed an interim publisher: Paul Farrell, publisher of the Lee-owned Richmond Times-Dispatch and Lee’s group publisher for its southeast region. When Farrell didn’t return calls and emails in late July, a Google search revealed that he had, in fact, retired—though it’s unclear when.
Since July 4, Kelly Till has handled Farrell’s duties at the Times-Dispatch and is also Lee’s vice president of sales in the southeast. It’s unclear who replaced Farrell as regional publisher. The paper stopped listing Farrell as interim publisher on July 30, one day after I contacted Till.
In an email, Till said she oversees revenue for Lee in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Atlantic City, New Jersey. But she referred questions about the News & Record to three others: Chris White, president of Lee’s eastern media group; Paige Mudd, local news director for Lee’s east region; and News & Record managing editor Jennifer Fernandez, a 22-year newsroom veteran who, in addition to planning daily news coverage, often fills in as a reporter.
None of them responded to multiple requests for comment.
The News & Record used to be a great paper—maybe not every day, but on a lot of them.
From 1965 to 2013, the newspaper’s owner was Landmark Communications in Norfolk, Virginia, whose papers included The Virginian-Pilot, Roanoke Times in southwest Virginia, and dozens of smaller ones. (It also created The Weather Channel.)
Landmark, which sold the last of its media holdings in 2021, was in the business of making money—though it’s unclear how much, because the company was privately held. But controlling owner Frank Batten Sr. believed in local journalism, at least enough to keep editors reasonably happy with their resources.
The News & Record was where staff received a runner-up nod for the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 1979 Klan/Nazi shootings, when white nationalists killed five people at a local “Death to the Klan” rally organized by the Communist Workers Party.
It was where, in 1985, people lined up along East Market Street to buy Jerry Bledsoe’s latest installment of a series chronicling murders involving three prominent local families, which later became the book Bitter Blood.
It was where Jim Schlosser, propelled by innate curiosity and boundless enthusiasm, delighted readers for 41 years with articles about things he found interesting: an old building, the history of Greensboro’s PGA golf tournament, urban foxes.
And it was where I reported and edited, to significantly less acclaim, from 1995 until 2018.
The News & Record reflected Greensboro, for better or for worse. Both were the third-largest things of their kind in the state. Both resented being compared to larger, flashier versions of themselves in Raleigh and Charlotte. And both struggled to rebuild amid sweeping changes that began in the 1990s.
In Greensboro’s case, that was the exodus of thousands of tobacco and textile jobs. For the paper, it was competing against digital outlets for advertisers and readers.
In the early 2000s, something else was bearing down on the News & Record: fallout from a failed expansion. In 1999, publisher Van King, with the blessing of Landmark’s higher-ups, plotted to expand circulation in communities surrounding Greensboro, particularly in High Point and Randolph County.
One afternoon, King, who had risen from the reporting ranks, summoned us to the cavernous room in the basement that housed rolls of newsprint. With his pocketknife clenched in his teeth, he pledged to destroy the competition.
Editor John Robinson immediately hired more than 30 additional staff, most to expand existing bureaus in Asheboro, Eden, and High Point. The News & Record’s newsroom topped 100 people, the biggest it had ever been or would ever get.
But within a few years, it was clear there weren’t enough advertisers and subscribers to justify the additional expenses. The revenue simply didn’t support King’s gambit.
King retired in 2004 at age 54, though many of the staff suspected it wasn’t by choice.
Robin Saul, publisher of the Landmark-owned Carroll County Times in Maryland, was tapped as King’s replacement amid mounting financial pressure. Sensing a looming crisis, Robinson said he began “squirreling away resources.” He stopped filling empty positions and moved people from the bureaus to Greensboro when key slots like the City Hall or police beats opened.
Yet the paper still wasn’t sending enough cash back to Norfolk. Robinson wasn’t surprised when Saul told him to lay off staffers in mid-2007—a first for the paper, if not for Landmark itself.
“After some arm-wrestling and teeth-gnashing, I walked upstairs, told my managing editor what was going on, went into my office, closed the door, and started trying to figure out who would go,” Robinson said.
On June 7, 2007, managers across all departments terminated 41 employees. The newsroom lost 11 full-time workers and six part-timers—roughly 10 percent of the staff.
“The effectiveness of the newspaper’s daily operations will not be jeopardized,” Saul promised in a brief article published the following day.
Had those of us who remained known then what we know now—that the cuts were just beginning, and that security guards would escort dozens more colleagues out of the building over the next decade, until all the security guards were gone too—our reaction that day might have been less vitriolic.
Ed Cone reported the layoffs in real time on his widely read blog “Word Up,” which acted as the paper’s de facto ombudsman. Under cover of anonymity, newsroom employees complained of a staff “cut bone thin” and “struggling to fill the paper” even before the cuts—and though neither of these characterizations was technically true, the losses felt insurmountable.
Today, Cone believes the moment illustrated the industry’s lament. Blogs like his provided immediacy and relevance, something print journalism in general and the News & Record in particular had failed to leverage. Comments from the unnamed employees, many of them young, proved this by showing that they trusted his system more than their own, he said.
Meanwhile, an exhausted Robinson plotted the future of his newsroom even as he and other department heads questioned their culpability. Landmark had always told senior leaders that when a paper is struggling financially, “it’s not the workers who should be laid off, but management,” he said. “Management should have known and managed their business better. We took that personally.”
He remembers layoffs coming about once a year over the next four years, though never as many as in 2007. But no matter how many newsroom positions went unfilled, no matter how small they made the pages to cut down on production costs, neither Saul nor Landmark were satisfied.
As a result, the paper experienced austerity so severe it was comical.
Management created a company-wide morale-building team that included an avuncular copy editor. During one team event, we were treated to some sandwich cookies and an orange fruit punch called Tampico. Reporters, myself included, mocked the off-brand snacks as evidence of our employer hitting rock bottom.
The next day, we learned that the copy editor had bought them himself. The morale-building team had no budget.
Those who remained at the News & Record in the early 2010s—probably 50 or 60 of us—somehow managed to give readers their money’s worth. Reporters routinely broke news, including corruption at the Greensboro ABC Board and fraud by an investment manager turned youth-basketball coach. The Sports department won four awards in the 2011 Associated Press Sports Editors’ national contest.
Such victories weren’t sustainable, though, and Robinson knew it. Wrung-out and unable to envision an even smaller staff, he resigned in December 2011 and became an adjunct journalism instructor at UNC–Chapel Hill.
“The last straw,” he said, “was getting the budget expectations for 2012 and seeing no raises and a smaller budget than before, and just thinking that I can’t do it anymore.”
In 2008, a year after the first layoffs, Landmark sold The Weather Channel to NBC Universal for $3.5 billion.
I naively hoped the proceeds might be used to steady the News & Record. But in 2013, Frank Batten Jr., who took over Landmark after the death of his father, walked in—for the first time in my memory—to announce the sale, with BH Media’s Kroeger right behind him.
At the time, Buffett had what he called an “almost unnatural love” of newspapers and, as such, owned 29 of them. BH Media selected the News & Record as No. 30, Kroeger told us, because of Greensboro’s strong sense of community. With 58,000 daily subscribers and 86,000 on Sundays, it became the third-largest BH Media newspaper.
“Buffett” was misspelled in the next day’s print headline.
By 2016, it became clear that not even the Oracle of Omaha could make the numbers work—at the News & Record or any of the 79 dailies and weeklies he had amassed. Buffett complained that his portfolio wasn’t bringing the 10 percent after-tax returns he’d imagined, even though, as he said, “[t]he easy cutting has taken place.” He also said that newspapers “don’t tell me as much news as three years ago, let alone 10 years ago. … There’s less and less in the newspaper.”
The next year marked a turning point for the News & Record, and not a good one. Daily circulation was a paltry 35,450, and there were just 48,500 Sunday subscribers—37,500 fewer than when BH Media had bought the paper four years earlier. By July, attrition and more layoffs had reduced the reporting staff to 15.
Kroeger said that without major cuts, some BH Media newspapers wouldn’t turn a profit.
Unable to increase revenues, the company looked beyond staff reductions to cut costs. In 2017, the News & Record stopped printing its own paper when BH Media moved production to Winston-Salem. The Winston-Salem Journal received the later printing time, which meant it could include more late-breaking stories. In Greensboro, print readers interested in news that happened after 8:30 or 9 p.m. would have to wait another day.
BH Media also put 200 East Market Street on the market in 2017, for a price unknown to even the publisher (who, because of cost cutting, was also the editor).
At that point, BH Media saw no need to maintain our workplace. Weeds grew waist-high in natural areas obscured from public view, and management locked bathrooms in some parts of the cavernous building to reduce cleaning costs. Employees sweltered in the summer, and froze in the winter when the ancient boiler shuddered to a halt. Reporters bought thermometers to document the extreme highs (85) and lows (mid-50s) in the building.
Around that time, a prominent businessman wanted to drop by to give me a scoop, but didn’t want other reporters to see him. I suggested we avoid the second-floor newsroom and talk downstairs. We entered an empty conference room and I shut the door, revealing—to my great horror—a long tail sticking out of a glue trap.
I left the paper, voluntarily, in May 2018. The Triad Business Journal needed a managing editor, and at 50, I needed more job security—as evidenced by the fact that I’d stripped my desk of all personal items so I wouldn’t have to retrieve them post-layoff. It was all too much, carrying the News & Record’s burden around. Sources constantly complained about news we’d missed, and friends routinely asked about future plans to merge with the Winston-Salem Journal or shut down entirely.
A few weeks after I left, BH Media hired Lee Enterprises to manage its newspapers. In 2020, Lee bought the portfolio outright.
Within the news industry, Lee is considered one of the more mercenary owners—not quite rising to the level of vulture capitalism, but skirting the line.
It owns 77 mid-size media outlets, including newspapers, websites, and apps. Among its largest are the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Buffalo News, and Omaha World-Herald, Buffett’s hometown paper, along with the eight North Carolina newspapers it bought from BH Media.
Its first-quarter report shows a rise in digital revenue from its portfolio—there’s debate within the industry over how the company calculates the figures—but a continued decline in print-ad revenue and print subscriptions. The result was a $6.7 million net loss in the first quarter of 2022.
After two years under Lee’s ownership and four under its management, the News & Record’s presence is rarely felt in Greensboro. When it is, it’s due to sheer force of will, exerted not by Lee, but by the six remaining reporters and a couple of editors—including managing editor Fernandez—who declined to discuss the situation.
Their silence might be explained by an incident that happened at another Lee-owned paper in 2020. As the only full-time journalist at the Floyd Press in Virginia, Ashley Spinks reported, took photos, edited freelancers’ articles, and performed other newsroom duties. But after she spoke to Virginia Public Radio about cuts at the paper—including a reduction of storage space for emails—Lee fired her.
For his part, Robinson, the former editor, worries most about the news that goes unreported, particularly within local government. Plus, the paper’s top local leaders once served as the conscience of the community, influencing leaders and speaking on behalf of the community.
“If you don’t have an editor out in the community doing things, or a publisher who lives in the community, your voice isn’t heard in the circles where decisions are made,” he said.
And things can always get worse, as evidenced by Alden Global Capital’s attempt at a hostile takeover of Lee in late 2021.
Alden, a hedge fund that owns Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald, and dozens of other papers, is known for its ruthless cost-cutting—twice the rate of its competitors, according to the UNC Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media.
“They call Alden a vulture hedge fund, and I think that’s honestly a misnomer,” a former Tribune reporter told The Atlantic. “A vulture doesn’t hold a wounded animal’s head underwater. This is predatory.”
Alden owns 6 percent of Lee Enterprises. Tired of Lee’s disappointing financial results and convinced that deeper cuts would raise profits, Alden first made an unsolicited bid to buy Lee for $141 million in late 2021, which Lee declined. Then Alden sued for seats on the board of directors.
Lee’s journalists were in the untenable position of advocating for Lee, which would likely make fewer cuts. “If Alden is a cancer on journalism,” one anonymous Lee editor told Axios, “Lee is COVID, MRSA, and SARS.”
Lee won in court in February, preventing Alden from seizing the board seats. Three months later, Axios said Lee planned to cut 400 jobs at 19 papers this year, though it didn’t specify which ones.
The future of 200 East Market Street is just as murky. On May 18, 2018, in one of my final bylines for the News & Record, staff writer Dick Barron and I reported that the building was under contract, though BH Media wouldn’t tell us to whom or for how much.
For months, everyone from the downtown booster group to Mayor Vaughan herself speculated about what would become of the site. Apartments? Retail? Some exciting combination of the two?
Weeks turned into months, then months into years. On July 8, 2021, the paper announced that BH Media had listed the property once more, for nearly $11 million.
More than a year later, the News & Record hasn’t published a follow-up.
Correction: This article previously misstated Toyota’s investment. It is $1.3 billion.
Margaret Moffett, a native of Wilkes County, is a ghostwriter and freelancer based in Greensboro. During her 23 years at the News & Record, she won 13 state and national honors, including a first-place award from the Society for Features Journalism. She has also worked as an adjunct in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.