The days of the media mogul were supposed to have ended a generation ago. Belligerent barons were supposed to have been replaced by big, faceless corporations. But as the traditional media struggles to survive in the digital age, the mogul seems to have staged a comeback, albeit in a newer, usually high-tech guise.
The latest pillar of American media to come into the hands of a billionaire is Time magazine, which Marc Benioff, the founder of the software company Salesforce.com, is buying for $190 million.
The good news for Time is that Benioff has deep pockets and a personal interest in owning a newsmagazine, unlike its current owner Meredith Corporation. The bad news is that like a lot of media born in the era when news appeared in black ink on white paper, Time seems to have a grander history than it does a future.
Benioff seemed to be saying as much in a backhanded Twitter compliment: “The power of Time has always been in its unique storytelling of the people & issues that affect us all & connect us all. A treasure trove of our history & culture. We have deep respect for their organization & honored to be stewards of this iconic brand.”
By old media standards, with its circulation of two million, Time isn’t doing badly. But last year, the weekly was forced to cut its circulation by a third and laid off 300 staffers. Apart from its “Person (formerly Man) of the Year,” it doesn’t generate much buzz any more.
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Time did grow its digital audience by 15% in three years to over 30 million unique visitors a month, according to comScore. But in the Age of Trump and politics as a three-ring circus, nearly all media outlets have gained more eyeballs.
Which isn’t to say they are making any money from them. Readers are resistant to paywalls and the lion’s share of digital advertising is taken by Google, Facebook & Co.
Benioff isn’t the only American billionaire to want his own iconic media property. Earlier this year the biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Siong acquired his hometown newspaper The Los Angeles Times for a steep $500 million. Before him, tycoons David Geffen and Eli Broad had looked into buying it. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos forked over $250 million for The Washington Post in 2013, Laurene Powell Jobs (Steve’s widow) bought a stake in The Atlantic last year and Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes bought The New Republic in 2012 and then sold it in frustration four years later.
Those are the tech moguls. John Henry, who made his fortune in global investment management, acquired The Boston Globe for a mere $70 million five years ago and Glen Taylor, an entrepreneur who got his starting in the printing business, took control of the Minneapolis Tribune a year later.
It can’t be anything but a relief to the journalists who work at these outlets. It may be humiliating to be working for an organization regarded as a part-time hobby for a Master of the Universe, but at least the master feeds you well and the record has been one of benign stewardship of the editorial operations (with the notable exception of Howard Hughes, who set off a staff rebellion).
In the case of The Washington Post, Bezos beefed up the newsroom to close to 800 staff from 560, and has turned the paper into a formidable competitor to The New York Times for the first time in decades.
Bezos focused his attention on the Post’s technology and business sides. Digital subscriptions have tripled since 2016 to more than one million paid subscribers and the newspaper is profitable, although the Post probably got more than a little inadvertent help from Trump on that account.
The new generation of moguls seems to operate on a different principle than their grandparents. An iconic media property is a trophy, like buying a grand old estate or donating an Old Master to the local museum, but the power and glory of ownership isn’t about buying influence. Rather, it seems, it’s about demonstrating their business and technology magician-ship – “Where a big media conglomerate failed in the new media age, I can succeed.”
So are moguls the future of the media?
Personally, I wish Bezos the greatest success. If he can turn around an old-line media property through tech wizardry and make it profitable, then it won't be just the media industry that benefits but democracy as well. It would be great if he found a winning formula that has eluded publishers so far.
The catch is that there aren't that many Jeff Bezoses around to keep an entire industry afloat, and among the billionaires that might want to buy a newspaper or magazine, most don't have the technology background or the motivation to make their properties anything more than ego trips.
Also, for every Washington Post or Atlantic, with their reputations and global reach, there are a hundreds of local media outlets that are no less critical to the function of a democracy and have neither the clout or the audience to survive in the current environment.
The Washington Post's motto is "Democracy dies in darkness," but the light of the media only stays lit if the media are a sustainable business that doesn't have to depend on the goodwill of billionaires, and can generate the kinds of revenues and profits that enable them to do in-depth journalism and not just fodder for tweets. In the long run, the mogul model won't cut it.