Featured photo: Men pick up letters at the old News & Record building. (photo by Joseph Navin)

“In towns and cities where there is a strong sense of community, there is no more important institution than the local paper.” –Warren Buffett, May 29, 2012

Pistol drawn at his side just in case, the Loomis armored-car driver stopped Monday through Friday at the newspaper’s headquarters to cart out great bags of money. Bank deposit bags of paper money and checks, heavy canvas sacks bulging with loose quarters, fat nickels and thin dimes collected from paper routes and coin-operated boxes all over town, rolled out of 200 E. Market St. in downtown Greensboro from the day these doors opened in 1976.

The armored car doesn’t stop here anymore.

After the sprawling News & Record plant became the property of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, the “Oracle of Omaha,” regional managers cut back the courier’s rounds, like everything else, then eliminated them altogether. Today, 11 years after Buffett bought the place, the only things rolling through these gates are transport trucks going back and forth to the scrapyard.

Watching the plant demolition from the sidelines last Saturday was Buck Lineberry, the last N&R employee to lock up the place and turn out the lights after the gutted staff moved across town in 2020.

A month ago, Lineberry handed the keys to the empty newspaper plant over to DH Griffin Wrecking Co., and now it was their headache. No more calls from the fire department in the middle of the night after squatters set fires inside the place. No more emergency messages from the police, like the early morning last August when they found Tiffany Holmes-Williams’ body in one of the abandoned buildings, strewn with trash and human waste.

Photo by Robert Lopez

Such was the catalyst for the city to condemn the old N&R complex once and for all and order its absentee corporate owner, Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, to tear it down. Berkshire, as Buffett calls it, has local real estate brokers four miles away at Friendly Center, but maintained that it hired a private management company and had no idea the site had deteriorated so. Which made total sense, hidden away as the two-square-block, six-acre site on East Market is, smack dab between the train and bus station, Central Library and the Cultural Arts Center.

Either way, the wrecking crew was coming, and Lineberry, of all people, should have been prepared. As a young man all the way back in 1971, he watched from a nearby train trestle when 48 pounds of dynamite imploded the King Cotton Hotel in a milky pink cloud of who-knows-what on this very parcel, clearing the way for the newspaper. A decade or so later, Lineberry helped shut down Revolution Mill, Cone’s textile behemoth that sat vacant for 20 years.

Nevertheless, the dystopian scene that last week unfolded at 200 E. Market left even a grizzled 72-year-old master mechanic speechless. The signature green Goss Metroliner press, three stories high, 167 feet long, weighing more than a Boeing 747, lay smashed apart in a mound of rubble.

“Wow,” Lineberry said quietly, putting a hand over his mouth and adjusting his glasses.


The scene of the crime

Between greasy puddles of rainwater next to the half-demolished plant, a tangle of precision-engineered innards spilled out like the contents of a beached whale. Barrel-shaped motors dead on their sides. An ink-mixing keyboard ripped from its cables. Oscillators. Reel arms. The big folder apparatus with its lethal tuck-in blade. The metal dolly, small but indestructible, that transported giant rolls of paper brought in by the boxcar on a Southern Railway spur.

Before the press shut down in 2017 and print operations were consolidated to Winston-Salem — that is, until they consolidate, once again, to Lynchburg next month — the big Goss Metro was something to see. Boy Scout troops and elementary kids would take tours and stop, mouths agape, when the buzzer alarm went off and the run started, lumbering at first, braking to check the color register, then restarting and speeding up to full capacity at 72,000 copies an hour, a thundering load that made the catwalks sway.

Lineberry had long since drained the ink tanks, the way you might prepare a cadaver for embalming. Still, there was no ceremony in how the massive 13-unit press — minus two units sold off to an operation in Bogata, Colombia — was laid to rest. As the jaws of DH Griffin’s cranes battered and banged, bashed and scraped the press units apart, remnants in the ink lines spurted black, yellow, magenta and blue-green, splattering the debris behind the caution tape like a four-color crime scene.

This past two weeks, former newspaper people showed up one by one to gawk. They stood at a distance and stared, shot video on their phones, sifted gingerly through the wreckage looking for souvenirs, some clue to what it all meant.

One was Susan Ladd, the N&R’s last metro columnist, axed in a cascade of layoffs that started in 2007, accelerated under Berkshire and continued under current owner Lee Enterprises, claiming production and distribution people, reporters, photographers, a sports columnist, all the way up to the top editor.

Photo by Robert Lopez

“It’s tipping back on its tread,” Ladd said with alarm as a CAT steam shovel repeatedly slammed into the exposed press to pry it loose from the floor.

Press gears flew like frisbees from the CAT’s mechanical claw. The steel-cutting jaws of a second crane clamped on the enormous press cylinders, plates still attached from one last job, and tossed them on the pile like toothpicks.

The ensuing rubble held no clues. Even the “time capsule” from the N&R lobby got lost in the move when the newspaper staff downgraded to an industrial strip somewhere on South Elm-Eugene Street. Back in 1990, the paper’s centennial year, executives with the family-owned Landmark Communications posed for photos with the time capsule, a half-hearted salute to the next hundred years.

A generation later, their helter-skelter plans yielded a less than camera-ready picture: mound after mound of beige 1970s bricks, mixed with mortar dust and random pieces of paper fluttering in the breeze. Payroll records from the ’90s mingled with copies of commemorative editions someone in the mailroom had set aside — the election of Barack Obama, the death of Michael Jackson, the “King of Pop.”

 And with the press now out of the way, the cranes steadily chewed their way toward the inner sanctum on the first floor at 200 E. Market. That’s where the N&R’s vault resides, a cinder block room with a heavy steel door and a combination lock.

Inside, be assured, Berkshire did not leave one thin dime. And that’s the message inside this crumbling fortune cookie. Berkshire, with a portfolio of $378 billion, squeezed every last cent out of these distressed properties. And naturally, that includes the real estate that these many mid-sized, mid-century newspapers are sitting on.

A stone-cold whodunnit

But here we’re getting ahead of the tale. Greensboro’s particular chapter in the story began in January 2013 when Buffett bought the N&R, adding it to the haul of 63 newspapers he bought from Media General the year before.

His strategy was a head-scratcher, on the surface. He was betting on an industry hemorrhaging advertising dollars, thanks to the twin suction machines of Facebook and Google. Legacy newspapers were meanwhile failing to invest in the digital revolution, embarking instead on the brilliant plan of giving away their journalism for free, but expecting subscribers would still pay.

Photo by Robert Lopez

Why, then, would America’s smartest investor extend a hand to a business drowning in quicksand? The answer, Buffett’s PR department explained, had nothing to do with the bottom line. You see, Buffett had a soft spot in his heart for newspapers. He himself started out as a paperboy, delivering the Washington Post, peddling his bike as he waved to Mrs. McGillicuddy on her porch, turning those hard-earned nickels and dimes into dollars. 

Inconveniently, the halo effect grows dimmer, less “Leave It to Beaver,” when you learn that at age 14, Buffett the paperboy filed a tax return that itemized as business expenses — and this is no joke — his bicycle and his wristwatch.

That’s more like the Buffett we know. He’s the man behind the curtain that headline writers forgot to pay attention to when they rejoiced that the Oracle was “bullish” on newspapers, then later lamented that he had changed his mind and “thrown in the towel” on the industry by selling his newspaper empire to Lee Enterprises.

The headlines were wrong, and wrong again. The Oracle had not lost his touch; he was three moves ahead on the chessboard, while the rest of us played checkers, the shrewdness of the deal sailing right over our heads.

For instance, that Media General purchase to help those struggling papers? As part of the deal, Berkshire loaned Media General $400 million at 10.5 annual percentage rate (plus a $45 million revolving credit, plus hefty stock concessions and a seat on the board). And the subsequent sale to Lee Enterprises, involving 30 daily newspapers including Greensboro? Berkshire loaned Lee $576 million at 9.5 percent. Over a 25-year term, that comes out to almost $1.3 billion in interest for Berkshire.

And there it is. Our favorite folksy, grandfatherly multi-billionaire isn’t George Bailey at all. He’s Mr. Potter, scheming to get his hands on the Building & Loan.

And yes, we hear that at age 93, Buffett is giving billions to the Gates Foundation. Billions bled from any number of cities like Greensboro, and any number of employees who lost careers, couldn’t start families or couldn’t put their kids through college, or couldn’t retire.

Photo by Robert Lopez

Want to see where philanthropic “giving back” comes from? Stop by the corner of Market and Church. The degraded site, which Berkshire now hopes to sell for $11 million, was so dangerous that Duke Energy cut the transformers. Trespassers looking for copper were pulling cables with 1,000 amps still running through them, leaving arc burns on the walls.

Through it all, Berkshire left the N&R flag emblazoned across the building. This past Thursday, a DH Griffin crew used a cutting torch to take down the sign. In the end, the name had more value to a wrecking company than it did to Berkshire.

“That hurt, in many ways more than anything,” said Kenwyn Caranna, a copy editor, reporter and web designer at the N&R for more than 20 years. “When you’re trying to put out a legitimate, earnest publication, and there’s this terrible reflection of decay.”

By the time Caranna quit the paper in 2023, that modern, busy plant where the Loomis driver used to stop five days a week was a homeless camp surrounded by garbage and tall weeds, easily entered, the scene of fires, drug overdoses, a homicide.

“Warren Buffett failed the News & Record,” Caranna said, “and he failed Greensboro.”

Lorraine Ahearn is an assistant professor of journalism at Elon University. She was the News & Record’s metro columnist from 1997-2009.

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