Saturday 20 October 2018

Print still has pull for tech billionaires buying control of legacy news brands

Jeff Bezos of Amazon has a hands-on approach at the Washington Post. Photo: Bloomberg
Jeff Bezos of Amazon has a hands-on approach at the Washington Post. Photo: Bloomberg
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

Becoming the custodian of a recognised media outlet has become the ultimate status symbol for a certain type of big-tech mogul.

Amazon's Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post. Biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong bought the LA Times. Laurene Powell Jobs has bought a majority stake in the Atlantic. And now Marc and Lynn Benioff have bought Time magazine from Meredith Corp for a tidy $190m.

So why are some tech billionaires drawn to buying legacy print publications? And are they successfully transforming them for the digital age?

Well, the first question is easily answered. The media still has pull. While the business model may be under pressure, many media brands still have emotional and cultural resonance. Plus, championing a once-proud industry that's fallen on tough times is win-win.

If Benioff, Bezos and co can turn around legacy publishers, they're proved their Midas touch extends beyond technology.

If not, they've engaged in an act of philanthropy, and perhaps extended the lifespan of these anachronistic institutions that talk about things like free speech and journalism.

So how successful these new media barons are at transforming these old businesses. Well, in the case of Time it's a little early to tell. It's also unclear how much hands on involvement the Benioffs will have. "Mr and Mrs Benioff will not be involved in the day-to-day operations or journalistic decisions, which will continue to be led by Time's current executive leadership team," said Meredith, which only bought Time Inc in January of this year.

Meredith's plan is to flog Time Inc's news and sports brands so that it can focus on the remaining lifestyle-oriented brands.

But Meredith will be tethered to Time magazine even after the sale goes through. It will provide short-term business continuity services and in the longer term, consumer marketing, subscription fulfilment, paper purchasing and printing services to the new owners.

It will also be able to include the brand in large-scale corporate advertising buys.

So what about Bezos and the Washington Post? Bezos isn't involved in setting the Post's editorial direction, but has reportedly taken a hands-on approach to the business and technology sides.

The paper's editor, Marty Baron, has said that when Bezos bought the paper from the Graham family he brought financial capital and intellectual capital. He changed strategy from "for and about Washington" to be more national and international.

He stressed that people shouldn't be hung up on what the internet has taken from media, rather they should see the online opportunities - like the opportunity to distribute at no cost. He talked up the need to experiment, and offered runway and time to let experiments to sink or swim. Baron said long-term thinking was prioritised. Unconventional and uncomfortable thinking was embraced. The Washington Post has also become a tech company, selling its very impressive content management system to other publishers.

Then there's Patrick Soon-Shiong, owner of the LA Times and one quarter of Tronc, the third-largest newspaper group in the US. It's early days for him too, but Soon-Shiong seems to know what he's getting into: the attention economy.

He is taking aim at fake news, which he's called the 'cancer of our time' and dwindling attention spans. He's invested in a new state-of-the-art newsroom in El Segundo but believes in human capital above physical infrastructure.

Soon-Shiong has talked more openly than other tech billionaires about the evolving role of journalists. "I think we have to evolve where a correspondent now has to have the capability of creating the story, not only just for print but for podcasting and for even TV interviewing and for streaming and for tweeting," he has said. "But I don't think we'll lose or should lose our core strength as journalists with great stories to tell."

There have always been media moguls. Perhaps the Benioffs, Bezos and Soon-Shiong are just the modern day heirs of William Randolph Hearst and Lord Beaverbrook.

But what's different in these instances is how the news industry has lost some of its lustre.

Paper has given way to screens, broadcasting is giving way to demand-led consumption of media. And traditional businesses have suffered as tech titans have hoovered up advertising revenues.

Modern media barons are transferring a portion of their personal wealth back into an industry that they've undercut.

Perhaps these are vanity projects, perhaps they're earnest attempts to rebuild media businesses, or perhaps there's some sort of commercial karma at play.

Sunday Indo Business

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