The 21st Century has been an interesting time for the media, particularly the newspaper business. According to Pew Research Center, the number of newspaper newsroom employees declined by 45 percent over the past decade, from about 71,000 workers in 2008 to 39,000 in 2017. At the same time, Pew found that newspaper advertising revenue declined by more than $30 billion dollars between 2006 and 2016.
Despite these challenges, in recent years a number of well-known billionaires have come forward to acquire prominent publications. Most recently, Salesforce founder Marc Benioff and his wife, Lynne, bought Time magazine for $190 million in September. Last year, biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong purchased The Los Angeles Times and several other newspapers for $500 million. In 2017, Steve Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, acquired a majority stake in The Atlantic. Perhaps most famously, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post in August 2013 for $250 million.
There are countless other examples, from Warren Buffett and John Henry to Joe Ricketts and Chris Hughes, that have had their share of difficulties. As David Gelles wrote recently for The New York Times, “[r]oughly a century ago, men like William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer and Henry Luce dominated the media landscape. These moguls built their publishing empires and used them to intimidate rivals, espouse favored causes and settle scores.”
While these acquisitions don’t necessarily signal a return to the Gilded Age, it does beg the question: Why do billionaires continue to invest in newspapers, magazines and other media outlets?
Is there a desire to influence public discourse? Do they view it as a challenge to make newspapers and magazines more profitable? Or is it simply a different form of charity for them? Sarah Toy with MarketWatch recently wrote about two possible reasons billionaires continue to purchase print media publications.
- “’Billionaires from the tech world see the enduring value of the printed product, even when people in the industry don’t,’ said Samir Husni, director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi. There is value in the print brand’s history, and a print product is less disposable than a digital product where you read and then click away, he said.
- “’I think the best of the billionaire media owners – Jeff Bezos, John Henry, Patrick Soon-Shiong – do it out of a combination of public-spiritedness and ego,’ said Dan Kennedy, author of ‘The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century,’ in an email. ‘Public-spiritedness because they genuinely want to play a role in saving institutions that are important to our democracy,’ he said. ‘Ego because it raises their public profile, and because they may believe that success they’ve had in business will translate to figuring out the dilemma of how to make money in journalism.’”
In a separate interview with David Beard writing for Poynter, Kennedy notes, “Bezos has been a rousing success for reasons that can’t easily be duplicated. Other wealthy owners, even those with the best of intentions, have found that the declining fortunes of the newspaper business can only be managed, not reversed. That’s not to say there aren’t steps that can be taken to put newspapers on a firmer financial footing. But there is no miracle cure.”
Ouch. Reading this led me to dig a little deeper, to try and better understand the influence and impact Bezos has had on The Washington Post. I came across a fascinating interview from the Fall / Winter 2016 issue of Columbia Journalism Review in which Kyle Pope sat down with The Post’s Shailesh Prakash, chief information officer, and Joey Marburger, director of product.
Marburger noted several of the changes since Bezos arrived. “… [H]ow we write stories and how we approach them has changed. There may be one news peg for one story, but we’ll write it in a hundred different ways. Look at the Hillary Clinton illness story: the video, the combination of videos, the analysis, the tick tock, the narrative. We actually drove the story forward. We’re owning more stories digitally than we ever have.”
In addition, Prakash, noted the arrival of Websked in the newsroom. “… [T]here is a central command where editors can see what’s being worked on across the newsroom – in video and photography and blogs.”
Turns out, that is only the beginning. As I dug deeper, I found an article written last year by Jessica Goodfellow for The Drum. To further Marburger’s point, she writes that, “the Post sees video, audio, VR and the like as an ‘and’ not an ‘or’, a companion to the written word rather than a replacement.”
Goodfellow continues, “[The Post] has built its own adtech company which includes over a dozen products such as custom ad units and its own ‘turbo’ ad server. The Post also builds software that it sells to other publishers through its software-as-a-service business (SAAS), Arc Publishing, and has employed new technologies including artificial intelligence (AI) to expand its newsroom and advertising capabilities.”
While it’s clear that Bezos has created a culture of innovation at The Washington Post, this is not unprecedented. The Seattle Times, a newspaper that’s been locally-owned by the Blethen family since 1896, last year created a dashboard that lets “the newsroom see if their stories are actually turning readers into subscribers.” According to Kristen Hare writing for Poynter, “The Times’ in-house analytics hub measures all the things most analytics tools measure, but it also looks at the work that leads people to pay for journalism.”
Hare shares that, “Digital subscriptions are measured by something called the ‘influence report.’ The report produces a score based on what users clicked on before becoming subscribers over three sets of time periods… Journalists at the Times are just starting to set goals around subscriptions. Many in the newsroom will be expected to increase their own scores by 15 percent, [Don] Shelton, [executive editor] said. It’s too early to know what a good influencer score is, he said, but people will be competing against their past work.”
While Bezos’ role in successfully turning around The Washington Post is well-documented, it will be interesting to see how the Benioffs, Soon-Shiong and others guide their publications.
The rapid transformation taking place across the media landscape today also has a profound impact on the public relations industry. The only thing that changes faster than technology is the media covering it. Just because you have a story that you think is newsworthy doesn’t mean the media will cover it. At Voxus, our veteran team knows how to craft a message the media will crave. And in these changing times, that’s more important than ever.
So, what news organizations do you think billionaire buyers will targeted next? And how are PR professionals responding to these changes? I’ll save my thoughts for a future blog post but encourage you to engage with us on our social media channels to share your views.