Billionaire Newspaper Owner Report Card

Article ImageWhile one of the most publicized instances was Amazon's Jeff Bezos purchasing The Washington Post, other prominent acquisitions have occurred in recent years: Boston Red Sox owner John W. Henry snatched up the Boston Globe; Wellesley businessman Aaron Kushner bought the Orange County Register and six other dailies; Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes acquired the New Republic; hotelier Doug Manchester pocketed the San Diego Union-Tribune; Warren Buffett lined his portfolio with dozens of local papers, such as the Roanoke Times and Press of Atlantic City; Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor gobbled up the Star Tribune; Alice Rogoff, wife of billionaire David Rubenstein, land-ed the Anchorage Daily News (now Alaska Dispatch News); Las Vegas business titan Sheldon Adelson procured the Las Vegas Review-Journal; and Jack Ma bought the South China Morning Post.

Whether these different purchases were fueled by capitalistic greed, hungry egos, altruistic ambitions, political agendas, or something else, the writing is on the wall: The procuring of prominent print dailies by the rich and powerful is more than a fading fad-it's a trend with legs, the experts say.

"It seems logical for billionaires to want a hand in information dissemination. For the dying print newspaper industry, they may be the breath needed to stay alive, even as simply a novelty," says Rachael Jurek, assistant professor in the department of journalism and public relations at the State University of New York-Plattsburgh (SUNY-Plattsburgh).

Ken Doctor, a news industry analyst and publisher of Newsonomics, says this trend has persisted because of the continued economic decline of the newspaper trade over the last several years; this opened up the gates to a new breed of buyers beyond the old-guard fraternity of ownership, "and the fact that newspapers have become far cheaper to purchase-with many titles today at 90% of the value they had 10 years ago."

However, judging by the performance of some of the aforementioned new owners and their papers post-acquisition, deep pockets don't guarantee successful publication efforts. Yes, Bezos seems to be keeping The Washington Post on the right track. The paper surpassed The New York Times last year in digital readers, with 76 million unique visitors tallied last December. Meanwhile, Bezos rolled out an all-new news service/syndication site in January. The Boston Globe has made progress under Henry, including the recent launch of a new health publication called Stat. Buffett's investment in smaller papers appears to be a wise one. But other previously cited ventures have ended in failure: Hughes is trying to sell the New Republic; Kushner resigned from the Orange County Register in 2015; and Manchester unloaded the San Diego-Tribune last year.

A few high-profile failures by folks such as Kushner and Hughes "show that a purchase by a billionaire isn't a magic cure, and buyers with flawed strategies and no publishing experience can hit the rocks," says Rick Edmonds, media business analyst for The Poynter Institute. "But under Bezos and editor Marty Baron, The Washington Post has shown terrific growth in digital traffic and a willingness to experiment. Henry has launched ambitious vertical sites on religion and the sciences and kept editorial quality high. And Buffett's group, though not wildly innovative, is a very solid operator-making good use of the chain's scale." Edmonds assigns the following letter grades to five of the most famous big bucks publishers: Bezos-A, Henry-B+, Buffett-B+, Hughes-F, and Kushner-F.

Kim Garretson, research fellow with Reynolds Journalism Institute, is slightly more generous, giving Bezos and Buffett, respectively, an A/A-; Hughes a B; and Henry and Kushner each a C. "I think, generally, it's good when the new money behind these papers can rapidly accelerate innovation and get to the ultimate product, which is a real-time, one-to-one news and content feed service where the content is what the reader specifies they want," says Garretson.

Doctor says the issue is too nuanced for him to try to grade individual owners, but he expressed admiration for what Bezos, Henry, and Taylor have accomplished thus far. "Bezos took a paper that was focused on the D.C. and metro market and turned it back into a national paper like it was before Watergate. Under Bezos, we've seen a great bolstering of the Post's newsroom, technology, and marketing and an attempt to make it the national newspaper of record. And syndicating his Arc platform to other publishers could be one of the most important things to happen to the industry in a long time," says Doctor. "With Henry, we're seeing more experimentation with niches, and while Taylor hasn't ushered in any particular innovations, he's maintaining a smart, steady course."

However, Doctor admits concern over Adelson's ownership and his capacity for "overt politicization of a relatively large daily. Nevada is a political swing state, and readers are highly dependent on the [Las Vegas Review-Journal] as a news source. This is troubling because it could portend more political buyers entering the newspaper trade."

For a legacy title to survive and thrive-and especially for those papers that need help transitioning to digital-many feel a special kind of owner is needed nowadays. "A successful new media owner will understand the technology that transports the news messages, not focus on how to reinvent a hard-copy paper. They will also boldly embrace new media consumption habits and standards," says Jurek, who cites Rupert Murdoch and Arianna Huffington as worthy examples.

Having wealth in the nine zeros zone certainly helps in this endeavor. "Ideally, the billionaire brings what Bezos likes to call ‘runway'-investment and patience needed for digital transformation as opposed to short-term profit pressures," says Edmonds.

Doctor agrees. "The most important thing [billionaire owners] bring is money, which buys capacity to maintain a newsroom large enough to provide a digital and print product as a company continues to figure out the right digital business model," he says. Ownership by a private entity with a large bankroll "also removes the paper from the quarterly and annual earnings pressure felt by publicly owned companies." Meanwhile, Garretson believes the ideal owner of a legacy paper today is a "technologist and user experience expert who taps emerging technologies to build a true one-to-one personalized news service."

Lastly, Jurek and others expect the wealthy elite to persist in picking up print papers. "This trend is long in history. Look at media legends like Murdoch and William Randolph Hearst-all rich kids inheriting money, media, or both," Jurek says. "Maybe it's about taking a business gamble, maybe it's about the power, maybe it's about controlling information, or maybe it's about challenging the status quo. But taking an investment risk on hard-copy papers appears to me to be a game more than an altruistic or economic endeavor."