As Salesforce.com founder Marc Benioff and his wife, Lynne, prepare to close their $190 million acquisition of Time Magazine, they joins an ever-expanding club of tech and other non-media billionaires who have decided to dabble in owning legacy media brands.
From Jeff Bezos at the Washington Post to Laurene Powell Jobs at The Atlantic to Patrick Soon-Shiong at the Los Angeles Times to Facebook veteran Chris Hughes at The New Republic, tech moguls have been trying their luck at one of America’s toughest businesses — with mixed success so far.
While some industry experts seem optimism for the new wave of investment in media outlets, others warned that billionaires who made their fortune outside of media may never be able to separate their personal interests from the coverage — or find a sustainable business model in a challenging industry despite their previous success.
“It depends on the billionaire,” Washington Post media reporter and former New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan told TheWrap. Sullivan said that one billionaire who undoubtedly fit the bill was her own boss — Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos.
“Being owned by Jeff Bezos has been extremely positive for The Post, as far as I can tell. He doesn’t interfere editorially, but has helped substantially on the business/technology front,” she said. “The Post is hiring aggressively, its newsroom numbers are way up, and its journalism is thriving under Marty Baron, who was top editor when Bezos bought the Post in 2013 and remains at the helm today.”
Others are more skepitcal. “Marc Benioff and other tech billionaires may have good intentions, but they should not be purchasing publications,” said Bustle Digital Group chief Bryan Goldberg, who previously founded Bleacher Report and Bustle and is currently planning the relaunch of Gawker.com.
“There is no realistic way for people like Benioff or Bezos to completely separate their companies’ ambitions from those of their news publications,” he said. “To suggest otherwise is total fantasy.”
(Benioff, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment from TheWrap, told the New York Times on Monday, “I’m not going to get involved operationally” in Time Magazine or its editorial content.)
Former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson offered a middle ground, telling TheWrap that while Bezos has made undeniable improvements to the Post, the jury was still out on how tech-based media moguls fare overall.
“It’s too soon to know,” she said. “I think many of the billionaires buying these properties have genuinely good intentions and want to save quality journalism. Of course, none of them like to lose money and it’s still a very tough business. So we will see.”
It’s also no sure bet that wizardry in the tech field will translate to the media space. When Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes purchased The New Republic in 2012, the promises were grand. “We will aggressively adapt to the newest information technologies without sacrificing our commitment to serious journalism,” he said in a letter to staff and readers.
After four tumultuous years — during which he sank more than $20 million into the magazine with no sign of turning a profit — Hughes sold the magazine and admitted that he had “underestimated the difficulty of transitioning an old and traditional institution into a digital media company in today’s quickly evolving climate.”
While benevolent kings certainly have advantages over poorly run public companies, questions of editorial integrity remain. Critics have pointed out that the Washington Post has, from time to time, run content that aligns with the interests of its billionaire chieftain.
For example, the Washington Post used its pages to attack Maryland’s Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich and warned that his election would be “cause for concern,” before reporting nine days later that he planned “honor” a series of tax giveaways Amazon was promised in exchange for possibly locating its second corporate headquarters there.
There was also this piece attacking a Sen. Bernie Sanders plan to help defray health care costs by taxing Amazon and other large corporations — which prompted Guardian columnist David Sirota to ask, “Can we please finally admit that there’s a possibility that the WashPost editorial page is at times being used to further the business goals of WashPost owner Jeff Bezos?”
Can we please finally admit that there’s a possibility that the WashPost editorial page is at times being used to further the business goals of WashPost owner Jeff Bezos? https://t.co/oGHChKPXFv
— David Sirota (@davidsirota) September 14, 2018
“The Washington Post operates with complete independence in making all news and editorial decisions. We alone decide what to publish,” the paper said in a statement to TheWrap provided after publication. “Everyone is entitled to their opinion about our opinion pieces and our newsroom reporting–a reminder that the two are completely separate.”
“The publishing business is facing a temporarily difficult economic climate, and the solution is to continue evolving our business models. The solution is absolutely not to put these magazines in the hands of billionaire tech moguls with political or legislative agenda,” Goldberg said.
“Marc Benioff is a good man with a big heart — but he should continue to focus his philanthropic efforts on hospitals and schools,” he said.