Benefiting From a Buffett "Mistake"

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At 81, investor extraordinaire Warren Buffett seems to have learned to reverse his field with all the quickness of Barry Sanders, Arian Foster, or just about any other past or present NFL ball carrier. Of course, the wisdom of his most recent change of direction remains open to question and will for some time. My Foolish colleague Rick Aristotle Munarriz has called the move dumb, and he just might be right.

Specifically, Rick was referring to Buffett's purchase, obviously through Berkshire Hathaway (NYS: BRK.A) (NYS: BRK.B) , of the Oracle's hometown Omaha World-Herald, along with half a dozen small dailies. The price for that combination of fish wrappers came to $200 million, including $50 million of debt. As an erstwhile media analyst, I have to cut another notch in my typewriter, indicating an additional well-heeled sort who views the paper he grew up reading as worth his investment shekels.

Lemonade from a lemon
The deal may have a benefit attached to it, which I'll identify momentarily. But first let me note why its consummation will amount to Buffett's figuratively reversing his field. As Rick also told you, just two years ago, at Berkshire's heavily attended annual meeting, he -- Warren, not Rick -- responded to a question on his thoughts about the desirability of investing in newspapers by saying, "For most newspapers in the United States, we would not buy them at any price. They have the possibility of going to just unending losses."

However, he has included other publishers in his company's past portfolios and still owns the Buffalo Sun, which he bought in the 1970s. Berkshire remains a major shareholder in Washington Post (NYS: WPO) . The latter company owns the excessively intermittent provider of my cable service.

Buffett's not the first mogul to chase the rabbit hole of beloved media franchises in their twilight years. Others who have made a killing in other fields, only to deploy their riches in scooping up a newspaper group, include Chicago real estate tycoon Sam Zell, who in 2007 engineered a convoluted privatization of Tribune Company, which owned the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. Zell's scheme involved the creation of an employee stock-ownership plan (ESOP) at the company, allowing it to take advantage of federal tax breaks for ESOPs.

A Foolish prediction
I must admit to having taken issue with the structure. As I said in another Foolish article, "It appears that once the deal concocted by Zell is completed, Tribune will be groaning under the weight of about $12 billion in debt. That seems ... excessive for a company whose assets will continue to be in ... newspaper[s]." Believe it or not, precisely three years later, Zell's concoction, unable to support the debt load, filed a Chapter 11 plan. That, screeched a group of lenders -- obviously not Foolish readers -- was "unfair."

A year after the Tribune restructuring, Long Island-based cable provider Cablevision (NYS: CVC) acquired Newsday, Long Island's daily, which, not surprisingly, steadily reports its results in a lovely shade of red. More fortunate was Boston-raised Jack Welch, once General Electric's (NYS: GE) CEO. In semi-retirement he considered pulling together a bid to acquire the faltering Boston Globe from New York Times (NYS: NYT) . Fortunately for Welch, the deal didn't come together.

As you can see, antiquated-media nostalgia and buyouts have a track record that doesn't inspire confidence in Buffett's purchase.

But this is Warren Buffett we're talking about here. It's no secret that his winners have vastly outnumbered those that went the other way. We won't talk about ConocoPhillips (NYS: COP) . But Buffett has had some recent success defying the odds in dying industries. Take Knoxville, Tenn.-based Clayton Homes. Omaha's Oracle in 2003 may have picked off the most thoroughgoing gem in the housing industry, broadly defined.

Clayton produces manufactured housing in its 35 plants. In the mid-1990s it counted about 15 publicly held peers. Today, while it is wholly owned by Berkshire Hathaway, it remains strong, even as most members of the '90s group have fallen by the wayside. Why the difference? In addition to the solid management that Buffett talks about so frequently, Clayton's operation of its Vanderbilt Mortgage unit gave it a leg up on the rest of the group. Vanderbilt lent conservatively and held the resulting paper on its own books, rather than become entangled in the messy world of securitizations.

Following Buffett'slogic
That's fine, you say, but what about the benefit from Berkshire's newspaper purchase that I promised to talk about? I simply believe that, amid our topsy-turvy market and economy, Buffett is right-on about media opportunities, albeit not in newspapers. At the same time, his attention to management strength is now more important than ever.

On both of those bases, I'm inclined to again raise the flag of cable's majordomo, Comcast (NAS: CMCSA) , a solid company at which investors all too often turn up their noses. I've followed the company for about a dozen years -- since it served about a third as many subscribers as today's contingent. The company is bearing down on the first anniversary of its acquisition of NBC Universal, and in a group headed by CEO Brian Roberts and de facto COO Steve Burke, it boasts as solid a management team as I've encountered in any company, regardless of industry.

Further, its shares are trading at a level more than 20% above its 52-week low, but they stand to gain nearly another 30% if the 25 analysts who follow the company are accurate in their prognostications. As noted, especially amid current market conditions, that sort of steadiness is highly desirable and calls for inclusion of the company on Foolish Watchlists.

However, if the media industry isn't your taste, The Motley Fool has just compiled a new report detailing its top stock for 2012. The report is free, but it won't be there forever, so check it out today.

At the time this article was published The Motley Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Berkshire Hathaway.Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. Fool contributorDavid Lee Smithdoesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in the above article. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

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