As media outlets continue to emphasize their digital platforms, the tech industry has become increasingly intertwined with the news business. The latest example came earlier today, when Laurene Powell Jobs — widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs — purchased a controlling interest in The Atlantic through her organization, the Emerson Collective.
With tech giants from Amazon to Facebook throwing major dollars into what’s been dubbed a dying industry in recent years, the investment from Powell Jobs highlights how and why news outlets are still appealing to billionaires.
“This is a real sign of confidence in quality media, because all of [The Atlantic’s work] is serious quality,” said Gabriel Kahn, professor at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “In the incredibly challenged landscape of the media business, The Atlantic has clearly been a success story and shown that something that began as a print magazine can be as innovative as anyone else out there — and aggressive, with all the things they’ve launched.”
Kahn pointed to Atlantic Media Group’s network of sites — including Government Executive, National Journal, and most importantly, Quartz — as a sign of its shrewd transformation into a digital powerhouse. This — coupled with Kahn’s assertion “media still has power” — shows why Powell Jobs was attracted to The Atlantic.
Emerson Collective will take the reigns of The Atlantic from David G. Bradley, who bought the publication in 1999 for a mere $10 million. The terms of today’s sale were not disclosed, but Bradley is set to make a tidy profit after leading the 160-year-old magazine’s impressive makeover.
Powell Jobs declined to comment to TheWrap, but credited The Atlantic in a statement announcing the deal, saying it aims to “bring about equality for all people; to illuminate and defend the American idea; to celebrate American culture and literature; and to cover our marvelous, and sometimes messy, democratic experiment.”
The 53-year-old has been an investor and board member in online news site Ozy.com, and also has ties to Anonymous Content — Steve Golin’s production company behind “The Revenant” and “Spotlight.” She’ll now follow in the footsteps of other tech heavyweights to jump into major media businesses. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos plopped down $250 million for the Washington Post in 2013, and the paper has experienced something of a renaissance behind his investment, and also the assistance of an election cycle.
Still, cash infusions from tech bigwigs haven’t always guaranteed success. Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes purchased a controlling stake in The New Republic in 2012, but was hampered by staff conflict and a rocky digital segue. Four years later, Hughes sold TNR to editor and publisher Win McCormack.
“I will be the first to admit that when I took on this challenge nearly four years ago, I underestimated the difficulty of transitioning an old and traditional institution into a digital media company in today’s quickly evolving climate,” said Hughes in a Medium post announcing his decision to sell.
So what makes publications like The Atlantic and the Washington Post a worthwhile gamble? Kahn — a veteran of the Wall Street Journal and currently the co-director of the USC Media, Economics and Entrepreneurship program — highlighted three aspects: 1) quality content, which 2) allows pubs to “rely on reader revenue,” and 3) strong leadership.
The third part is key, because you “have to have the management and technical expertise to put yourself in front of the consumer in the right way.”
Get those factors down, and you can build a sustainable 21st century media company like The Atlantic.
“Strong editorial, combined with a culture that embraces technological innovation, can lead to real lasting change and success,” said Kahn.