Editor’s Note: Heidi Legg is director of Special Projects at The Harvard Kennedy School. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
Over the past several years, billionaires have been collecting legacy journalism titles, namely beloved newspapers. At first, many of us in journalism were wary that this would stifle a free press, blur the line between editorial and ownership, and ruin what historian Jill Lepore recently referred to as “the taproot of modern journalism.”
However, we naysayers may have been premature in our judgment. Even-handed billionaire owners have been able to invest in legacy titles and help them transform digitally, giving them the chance to compete against the onslaught of unregulated third-party content polluting social media channels. Unlike hedge funds like Alden Global Capital, which owns Digital First Media, individual billionaire owners tighten the business model while funding new innovation and digital expertise.
Wealthy families have long owned media. The fabled father-daughter handoff of The Washington Post from Eugene Meyer to his son-in-law Philip Graham onto Katharine Graham, who inherited full control of the newspaper after her husband’s suicide, is now a thing of Hollywood. The Bancrofts owned The Wall Street Journal, which they sold to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp in 2007. The Ochs-Sulzberger family controls the publicly traded New York Times. The Newhouse sons, S.I and Donald, were born into one of the country’s most powerful publishing families and inherited Conde Nast, which includes Vogue, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. Of course, that was before the internet undercut the advertising-supported business model that had fueled newspapers for generations.
So, what is new? Today, when so many newspapers are struggling to barely hang on, buyers are digitally savvy, often live in the city where the paper is published and appear to care about democracy.
Take The Washington Post. When Jeff Bezos bought it for $250 million in 2013, the paper was struggling. The Graham family legacy appeared doomed thanks to Google, Facebook and Twitter. But Bezos understood the far-reaching power of both The Washington Post brand and the limitless delivery of news in a digital era. His funding has enabled the paper to think far beyond its zip code and transform to compete and integrate into digital platforms.
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The same year Bezos bought the Post, Red Sox owners John and Linda Henry bought The Boston Globe for $70 million. At the time, this legacy paper had a strong local delivery market, owned one of the earliest digital news sites, Boston.com, and newly launched BostonGlobe.com. Since then, the Henrys experimented heavily with digital, and today the paper has more digital subscribers than print. It is one of the leading local newspaper transformations into digital alongside The Los Angeles Times and The Star Tribune.
Minnesota businessman, sports team owner and former Republican senator Glen Taylor purchased The Star Tribune for $100 million in 2014, and biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong purchased The Los Angeles Times and all its holdings for $500 million in 2018.
Seeing a digital turnaround by Bezos at The Washington Post, more of the techno class arrived. Entrepreneur Laurene Powell Jobs, founder and president of the social change organization Emerson Collective and wife of the late Steve Jobs, purchased a majority stake in The Atlantic from David Bradley, who bought the magazine for $10 million in 1999. Salesforce founder Marc Benioff and his wife Lynne Benioff followed, buying Time for $190 million. Pennsylvania cable giant Gerry Lenfest was the first of this buying frenzy to place his 2014 purchase of the Philadelphia Inquirer and all of its holdings into a for-profit trust. It stipulates that all profits must be reinvested into the company to sustain its growth. Before he died, Lenfest also endowed and created the Lenfest Institute for Journalism with $40 million and tasked it with solving the local news model in a digital age.
Other tech billionaires have also invested without buying a title. Craig Newmark, who founded Craigslist and the Craig Newmark School of Journalism, has donated $95 million to journalism efforts, including the newly named Craig Newmark School of Journalism at CUNY and the Craig Newmark Center for Journalism Ethics and Security at the Columbia School of Journalism.
Protecting an independent free press has long been a tenet of the industry. Many of us worried that journalism ethics would fall by the wayside when the billionaire class showed up. But fortunately, over the past seven years, the billionaire transformers are looking a whole heck of a lot more benevolent than the tech giants in how they are committed to transforming the local news outlets directly with investments in technology and editorial might.
Hawkish journalists have been paying close attention to the editorial decisions at both The Boston Globe and The Washington Post when a story that may conflict with the owners’ personal gains or friendships emerges.
The Globe ran the tawdry story about Robert Kraft, a powerful fellow sports team owner of the Patriots in Boston, related to alleged sex-trafficking, and continues to dig on the shooting of Red Sox legend Big Papi in the Dominican Republic. Marty Baron, editor-in-chief of the Washington Post, has said that Bezos has never meddled with its coverage.
Today, the rush to own a legacy title will be remembered as a turning point for the dying American publishing industry that defined much of the 20th century. This urgent infusion into digital transformation has begun to show signs of a pulse. Many of the billionaire-owned titles have doubled down on digital and are showing digital subscriber growth. The digital subscribers are tiny compared to the market opportunity, but they are beginning to convert. The Boston Globe has 120,000 digital subscribers, The Minneapolis Star Tribune has 62,000 digital-only subscribers, The LA Times has 170,000, The Philadelphia Inquirer has 32,000, The Seattle Times has 40,000, while The Washington Post emerges as a national paper with 1.5 million subscribers from across the country and The New York Times remains the goal post at 3.5 million.
The decimation of the local news landscape left even Facebook dumbfounded about a year ago when it tried to launch a new local-news aggregator called Today In and couldn’t find enough local news to fully populate it. The absence of local news risks uninformed American citizens, and the spread of disinformation by those looking to sow discord. For that reason alone, this billionaire buying spree may be worth encouraging in other cities and towns where a local owner or philanthropist can transform the place in which they live and ensure a free press.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Laurene Powell Jobs' organization the Emerson Collective.