The Industry

The News Business May Need Tech Execs Like Marc Benioff

But it should fear them too.

Marc Benioff, with a hat on, in front of the Time logo.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Sound.

Sunday night brought the news that Marc and Lynne Benioff had paid $190 million for Time, the weekly newsmagazine whose iconic red cover trim has framed its coverage of current events for nearly a century. Marc Benioff is the CEO of Salesforce, the wildly successful enterprise software-maker, and is known for his philanthropy as well as his eccentricity, not to mention his eagerness to air his political opinions, which tend to lean socially liberal. He’s estimated to be worth more than $6 billion.

The sale comes eight months after Meredith Corp., the publisher of magazines like Better Homes and Gardens, Shape, and Family Circle, as well as the owner of 17 broadcast stations, completed its purchase of Time Inc. for $2.8 billion (with $650 million in financing from the private equity arm of conservative political donors Charles and David Koch), making the Iowa-based company the largest magazine publisher in the country. While Meredith will hold on to Time Inc. publications like Real Simple and People, it put Time, Fortune, Money, and Sports Illustrated on the auction block—making them only the latest storied media properties in search of a white-knight savior. Time, at least, will become the most recent publication to enter the stewardship of a new class of media barons who also happen to operate some of the most valuable companies in the world: tech executives.

Back in 2012, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes bought the (generally) left-of-center New Republic for a reported $2.1 million; four years and more $20 million in investments later, he sold it. In 2013 Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon and currently the wealthiest man in the world, bought the Washington Post for $250 million and plowed in funds to hire more reporters and invest in its digital efforts, ushering it to profitability. Last year, Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of late Apple CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs, bought a majority stake in the Atlantic, which is now on a hiring spree. Earlier this year, Patrick Soon-Shiong, a billionaire biotech executive, bought the Los Angeles Times for $500 million. Now there’s Benioff’s Time. In most of these cases, tech-billionaire ownership was probably a best-case scenario for the legacy publications in question, the other obvious alternative being gradual decline in an increasingly uncertain digital media landscape. For these reasons—where the wealth is, where the need and civic cachet are—Benioff’s recent acquisition is unlikely to be the last example of someone leveraging the tremendous wealth of the technology industry to buy a media company.

But who is Marc Benioff? And what does it mean for this corner of American power to produce so many patrons of a free press? The isn’t the first time titans of American industry, for better or worse, have used their fortunes to prop up social good, media or otherwise. Thousands of public libraries across the English-speaking world have steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie to thank for their existence. Railroad magnates like Thomas Kearns and Henry Villard went on to buy newspapers at the turn of the 20th century. The notion of tech investing in media isn’t new, either: To pick but one example, the magazine you’re reading was founded by Microsoft. But the age of the tech exec turned extracurricular media baron is still in its infancy. And considering how many of the world’s largest fortunes have been generated between Seattle and Cupertino, California, it’s natural to wonder which tech billionaire will get the newspaper bug next—and what an industry increasingly funded by the victors of the American technology industry means for democracy and the independence of the Fourth Estate.

For his part, Benioff has become a household name in the Bay Area. San Francisco’s recently completed Salesforce Tower is the tallest office skyscraper west of Chicago. The University of California–San Francisco’s children’s hospital network, which has multiple campuses, bears his name. He’s known for being outspoken on some political issues, as with his threat to pull his business from Indiana in protest of a state law that made it easier to discriminate against gay people and his public reckoning with fixing gender-pay inequities at Salesforce, not to mention his vocal objections to recent U.S. immigration policy—this despite the fact that Salesforce makes millions from contracts with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. Employees at Salesforce have urged their CEO to drop the CPB contracts, but Benioff has refused.

The Salesforce founder and his wife say they have no plan to meddle in the day-to-day operations of Time and that they’re not looking for financial returns, though Time is profitable. The print edition, which has more than 2 million subscribers, is apparently not going anywhere, either. The couple will, however, try to help assist the publication’s continued digital transition.

A Benioff-owned Time is obviously better than, say, a Koch-adjacent Time. For now, it is probably better than a Time directly answerable to investors or one owned by a vulture-capitalist hedge fund like one of the ones that have gutted some newspapers around the country. Look no further than what’s happened since GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The newspaper has reportedly regularly killed or watered down stories that are critical of the casino and real estate tycoon’s dealings. And at Alden Global Capital, the New York City–based hedge fund that owns more than 50 newspapers across the country, dramatically chopping editorial jobs has become a regular occurrence. On the contrary, this new breed of tech exec turned media mogul appears to be investing in the expansion of newsrooms while staying hands-off when it comes to editorial operations.

There’s been no obvious reason to fret that will change—even a cynic might conclude that someone like Jeff Bezos benefits far more from preserving the Washington Post as a public trust and independent news source than somehow forcing it to shill for his business (not that his ownership has made everyone happy—his managers have taken a tough stance negotiating pay and benefit increases with the Post newsroom’s union). And no matter who owns publications, the entire media’s fate is directly hitched to the whims of the large internet platforms, which direct eyeballs and ad dollars their way. Still, it’s hard not to worry that a news industry increasingly owned by tech CEOs would be at least somewhat incentivized to sympathize with their worldview. And that worldview is deeply entangled with the way they made their money, largely by consolidating power over our public commons, the internet.

That was possible thanks to a tremendous amount of regulatory restraint, a homogenous investor culture that overwhelmingly awards money to companies owned by white men, sometimes a dependence on production via inhumane factory labor abroad and a handsomely paid technical staff in the U.S., a philosophy of innovating first and cleaning up the negative consequences later, tax avoidance, and a lackluster commitment to ensuring that their products aren’t used to perpetuate societal ills. That moral bill of health may not be any worse than that of the media moguls of yesteryear, but it is important to keep in mind, particularly because in 2018, there are few better ways to polish a reputation than by buying a newspaper. Meanwhile, there may be few more important topics for media to cover than the ways, large and small, that technology and the internet are disrupting something they weren’t necessarily meant to disrupt: the body politic.

So yes, having tech moguls support journalism is probably better than the alternatives. And finding a way to sustain journalism as it attempts to make its economics work online is a tough, though hopefully not impossible, nut to crack, one requiring owners who can afford to be patient. But it will be important for news organizations not to lose sight of who is amassing power and what they could do with it. They’ll need to hold themselves, and their peers, accountable—even if it means making the men and women who write the checks uncomfortable.