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The Roanoke Times began as "purely a business enterprise" in 1886.
The Roanoke Times | File 1945
J.B. Fishburn headed a group that bought The Roanoke Daily Times and the Evening News in 1909. Fishburn, a banker by profession, moved the paper to its existing headquarters in 1914.
Thursday, May 30, 2013
When Warren Buffett’s BH Media Group takes over The Roanoke Times, it will be the first time the paper has changed hands in nearly 45 years.
The paper has enjoyed steady ownership over its 127-year history, starting in Roanoke’s boomtown days as a bald-faced commercial enterprise pumped out on a hand-cranked press and continuing to a time when it employed more than 600, circulated well over 100,000 copies a day, and reached more than 90 percent of the homes in its market.
Bedford native M.H. Claytor first offered what was then called The Roanoke Daily Times as an “intellectual and digestable breakfast” on Nov. 30, 1886.
But he made no pretense of his motives. It was “purely a business enterprise,” Claytor declared in his maiden editorial. “It will be conducted for the purpose of making a support for its publishers.”
But in those volatile days, papers appeared and disappeared seemingly every few months. When the Times fell on lean times, Claytor sold it. It changed hands several more times before Claytor bought it back in 1894, only to sell it again in 1909 for $105,000 to a syndicate of Roanoke businessmen led by banker J.B. Fishburn.
In a time when cities even as small as Roanoke maintained multiple daily papers, Fishburn and his syndicate effectively monopolized the market in Roanoke when they bought out their last competitor, the Evening World, in 1913.
A year later, Fishburn moved the paper to its existing headquarters at 201 W. Campbell Ave., and the paper was well on its way to decades of expansion. Circulation reached Christiansburg in 1924 and by 1936 topped 50,000. The paper bought WDBJ Radio in 1931 and founded a television station under the same call letters 24 years later.
In 1961, circulation surpassed 100,000.
Eight years later, Fishburn’s heirs sold Times-World Corp. to Norfolk-based Landmark Communications.
Landmark, led by Frank Batten Sr., was in the throes of its own great expansion. The company, which already published T he Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, bought the Greensboro, N.C., News & Record in 1965 and also owned two television stations when it bought the Roanoke papers in 1969. It was also in the cable television business by then, too.
In 1986, the Times’ work force reached a peak of 633, but with automation, technology and the folding of the afternoon edition, the paper began a long period of contraction. By 2003 the paper employed just over 400. Today’s work force is about 300.
Landmark announced its intention to sell off all its properties, including the Times, in early 2008, as the economic recession took hold. It didn’t find a buyer until a broker connected it with the media division of Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. in late 2012.
On Thursday, Frank Batten Jr. said the paper’s success has been because of people in Roanoke, and not “because of anything that’s come from Norfolk.”
Likewise, Buffett values the independence of the newspapers BH has acquired over the past two years.
And like Times founder Claytor, Buffett is not shy about viewing newspapers as not only valuable and relevant, but profitable.
“Our goal is to keep our papers loaded with content of interest to our readers,” he wrote in Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report this year, “and to be paid appropriately by those who find us useful.”
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