The Industry

The New Media Barons

What Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan makes of the tech billionaires taking over the new business—including her boss.

Monopoly-like board with labels like "Time Magazine," "Amazon," "Collect $2,000,000 Salary As You Pass," and "News"
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Monopoly.

The sale of Time magazine to Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and his wife, Lynne, is only the latest example of prominent figures in the technology industry using their fortunes to buy legacy media companies. There was Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes’ 2012 purchase (and 2016 sale) of the New Republic, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ 2013 purchase of the Washington Post, Laurene Powell Jobs’ 2017 purchase of a majority stake in the Atlantic, and biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong’s 2018 purchase of the Los Angeles Times.* They surely won’t be the last: The news business isn’t getting less tumultuous—nor any less essential to a functioning democracy.

What should we make of these tech titans turned media patrons, and should we worry about their intentions? To figure that out, we recently interviewed Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan on If Then, Slate’s technology podcast. A former editor in chief of the Buffalo News and public editor of the New York Times (as well as a current employee of one of those tech billionaires), she discussed the Bezos era of the Washington Post, what the new media barons have in common with the newspaper bosses of yesteryear, and what it will take for media organizations to survive the next financial crisis.

Read or listen to our conversation below, or get the show via Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or Google Play.

April Glaser: We often hear tech execs—mostly from Facebook and Google, not Salesforce, to be fair—belabor the point that they are not media companies. Still, Benioff does come from the same worldview at the center of the American technology industry. Can you help us understand what this means, to have tech executives buy media companies? Is there something that we really need to be thinking about here?

Margaret Sullivan: Well, I can talk about it directly as being an employee of the Washington Post, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, and it’s been a very, very positive thing for the Post.
The Post was, I think you could say it was troubled as lot of newspapers were, and was really trying to be a local newspaper and Bezos has sort of switched that around, so that the Post has very big national and even global ambitions. One of the interesting things about Bezos’ Washington Post is that by all accounts he keeps his hands off the editorial product, which is run by Marty Baron and was when Bezos came along. Marty hadn’t been there very long, but he remains, and of course he’s an extremely well-respected editor. And he has said multiple times that Bezos doesn’t say “Do run this story” or “Don’t run this story.” But it does seem like that’s what you would want. You want the editorial content left alone and run by journalists.

Is that always the case? Probably not. And there are billionaires who are not all going to be respectful of that. Benioff says directly that he will be, that he doesn’t want to tamper with the news product at Time. I guess we’ll see about that. He also has said that he thinks that Time aligns with his values. I think that all sounds perfectly OK. I don’t know how great we’d feel if some other billionaires started talking about how they’ve bought a legacy magazine or newspaper and they’re happy because they want it to align with their values. It might not always sound so great.

Will Oremus: That’s a good point. Let me ask a little bit more about the case of Bezos and the Post because that does seem like, at least on the surface, an example of the upside of this kind of arrangement. The Post is doing very well. Does a tech executive like Bezos just bring the money? You talked about the Post’s widened ambitions, the reach of their journalism is greater now, The scope of their journalism is greater. Is that just him saying, “Here’s a ton of money, go do good stuff with it”? Or is there something else that he is bringing? Is it a management style? Is there any actual technological expertise? Does it take a tech executive like this bring to, say, a company like Time, “Hey look, here’s how you build a platform at scale, here’s how you hire top software engineers,” that kind of thing.

Sullivan: I do think that Bezos has changed the culture of the Post and stressed that it needs to be very customer-oriented and customer-centric, and nimble and technologically agile and all those things. So I don’t think it’s just—the phrase that Bezos used when he first bought the Post was he wanted to give it runway. He wanted to give it the financial stability so that it could get going and take off. But he also, I think, has contributed to the culture and in fact to the technological direction of it. I can’t tell you exactly how involved he is on that end, but I think he is. So I think that there’s a potential upside there for legacy companies that are trying to figure out what to do in the post-print world.

And certainly Time magazine is one of those. It’s a great brand, it’s an iconic brand, as Benioff said. And it still has that cachet: When Time magazine does a cover on someone—or has a very interesting or sort of funny depiction of Donald Trump—people do pay attention to that cover. We know that President Trump that pays a lot of attention to how many times he’s been on the Time cover and that sort of thing. So it still carries that weight, but it’s struggling. It is profitable, I understand, but it certainly is less profitable than it used to be. And it is struggling with the demise of print advertising.

Glaser: Right. And Benioff and his wife Lynne did say they are going to help with some of the digital transition stuff, similar to how Bezos has so far treated the Washington Post—keep their hands out of the editorial process and just let the business run as it would. It seems like this is a better arrangement than, say, a group of venture capitalists swooping in and buying it, because then they’re going to be working the kind of lowest-common-denominator interest of all of the people who co-own the paper through the venture capital firm, which would be to profit. It seems like with these tech executives, they are—I don’t know if this is a pet project for them, but at least they have some level of values that they’re adopting these publications with.

Sullivan: Absolutely. One of the really difficult and bad developments in journalism in recent years is that hedge funds have bought up a lot of regional and small to medium-size and even large local newspapers. Like Alden Global Capital, which is one of the big villains that has bought a bunch of papers, including probably most famously the Denver Post, and taken their newsroom numbers down to the point where they really can’t cover their communities. I think with the billionaires we’re talking about, they seem to be invested in trying to keep the quality of the product that they’ve just bought. They’ve bought it, it’s hard to say why. I’m sure there are a variety of reasons. Is it a pet project, as you said? Is it a vanity project? Or is it because they really want this publication to succeed and they can both sort of do well by doing good. So I’m sure that there’s a sort of a whole range of reasons, but I do think it’s all a lot better than having to please the shareholders by keeping the profit margin up at all costs.

Oremus: Right. And if you look at the history of media ownership, it’s certainly not a new thing to have business magnates or billionaires coming in and buying a media empire partly as a vanity project—that’s not necessarily a bad thing. And if you go back in history, some of those moneybags who were media kingpins used their publications as organs to advance their agenda or to advance their political careers, or things like that—start a war, in a famous case. What is it like when you work for Jeff Bezos? You must feel some pressure not to write something agitating for antitrust action against Amazon. How do the Washington Post’s business reporters think about their obligations when Bezos is their owner, even if he’s not standing at their side saying, write this, don’t write that? There must still be an imaginary Bezos on their shoulder when they’re covering his company.

Sullivan: So just in the past week or so, I’ve had the opportunity to hear Marty Baron talk about that very thing because I was in a group of international press fellows. And they asked him that question and he cited a number of pretty tough stories that the Post has done on Amazon and again, well, as you said, it’s not going to be a phone call, “Don’t do this story.” But is there self-censorship? Do you hold yourself back? I don’t know. I don’t work in the business department, but I do see pieces in the Post, whether on the opinion pages or on the business pages, that are very far from being positive coverage or puff pieces. Now, are they going to be the big takedown of Amazon that the New York Times did a couple of years ago, in which it described the brutal workplace and so on? Maybe not.

But I think that certainly covering the news and looking a step further is not at all frowned on or impossible to do. And I should say, this is my second billionaire. I spent a long time at the Buffalo News as a reporter and all kinds of editors, and then eventually the top editor. And our chairman was Warren Buffett. And I can tell you that in the 12 years that I was editor of the paper and I also was on the editorial board, so had some say over the opinion pages as well as the news pages—he never ever got involved, it was not ever that he said, and he was a Hillary supporter and a Democratic donor and all of that. But we made endorsements and we didn’t say, “What would Warren think about this”? It really is very possible that there just isn’t a presence on that side. And they make a commitment not to be, and they live that way.

Glaser: One thing that strikes me about this kind of new class of media baron that’s coming from the tech industry is that they became so wealthy and so big thanks to all kinds of regulatory restraint from the government, a homogenous investor culture that overwhelmingly awards money to companies that are owned by white men, sometimes a dependence on production via inhumane factory labor abroad, and a philosophy of innovating first and cleaning up the negative consequences later. They’re also kind of at the heart of a lot of the political issues that are boiling over right now, whether it’s Cambridge Analytica or the 2016 election’s disinformation problem or antitrust. I’m curious if you have thoughts about so many owners coming from this one particular industry. Yes, we have seen billionaires own media properties throughout the past 100 years. That’s not a strange thing. And they have shown different levels of respect for keeping their hands off those, but in this case we see one industry buying media properties in this kind of short amount of time.

Sullivan: Yeah. And I think it’s untested at this point, or not fully tested. We don’t know, when the rubber hits the road, to what extent their ownership make a difference, and is that in the back of some of their minds when they do buy these properties up. Now, It’s a little hard to think that Time magazine is going to be crusading for any of the issues that the Benioffs would care about. But again, we really don’t know. This is all very recent. So I think it’s going to play out and we’ll see what happens.

Oremus: When Chris Hughes bought the New Republic, there were a lot of high hopes in the industry that this was a new model—that a wealthy savior from the tech industry would come in, take over a struggling but editorially worthy publication, and give it the infusion of cash and resources—the runway, to use your words—that it needed to get going again. But that one actually did not end well. Hughes clashed with, I think, some of the magazine’s leadership. There was an exodus, there was a lot of staff turnover. And then a little while after he got there, he said, you know what, we actually do need to make money and we’re not making any money. So let’s make a bunch of changes that could put us on that path, and that I think went against what some people’s expectations were. And so do these tech executives expect to eventually make money, do you think? And if and when the rubber meets the road on that, could things still go awry?

Sullivan: One difference with Chris Hughes was that he certainly did not keep a hands-off approach. I mean, I remember he did a big interview with Obama and he was a presence on the editorial side of the magazine. So there’s that difference right away. I suspect that for a lot of the new buyers, they’re not really—this is my gut feeling, I don’t really know—but I doubt that they care tremendously if their publication makes a lot of money. I suspect they would like it not to be a continual and endless cash drain. So if they made a dollar a year, maybe that would be OK. And of course it would be great if they could make it profitable and really make it work as a business. But I don’t think that that’s the primary motivation here, and it’s probably more “Just don’t let it be a disaster.” And the magazine business is tough right now: The transformation from print to fully digital is underway. But a lot of the revenue is still coming from print, and once we have a recession, which is inevitable, a lot of that still-hanging-around print advertising revenue could easily go away and force a crisis.

Oremus: I’m glad you brought that up, because the backdrop here is tough times in the media business and it’s been tough times of one sort or another for the past 10, 15 years. But it really seems like nobody—for all of the experimentation and all of the actually worthy innovations that have gone on, companies like BuzzFeed or Gawker, all sorts of new models, Axios, Politico that have sprung up—it doesn’t seem like there has emerged a steady path to profitability or sustainability in all that time. And so we’re kind of back to just like hoping a billionaire buys a media company and hope and you’ll let it lose money.

Sullivan: Right? I mean, I do think that, I’ve certainly studied the New York Times and the Washington Post as much as I can. And I think in those cases, so both of those publications are profitable, they have turned their attention, the Times maybe a little bit earlier, certainly the Post now too, less about digital advertising revenue and much more about subscriptions. So getting people to really feel a strong, strong connection with these newspapers, or whatever we’re going to call news organizations, to the point where they just feel like, “I don’t want to run up against that pay wall. I want to have free access, total access to it every day and therefore I’m willing to pony up and pay the money.” And I think that the ones that will make it probably will be able to have that kind of really strong bond. They may have other forms of revenue, but they’re going to have to rely on their readers or their customer base to be a major source of supporting them. I don’t think there’s any way around that.

Glaser: One question I have left is about Bezos’ relationship to the union at the Washington Post. I know that there have been tense contract negotiations between the editorial staff and management under Bezos, and I’m curious if you have any update or comment on that.

Sullivan: I don’t really have a lot of detailed knowledge about it. There has been a contract that was approved. I know that people aren’t tremendously happy with it, and they certainly made the case that because Bezos is so rich that he should be able to do more for the union members in terms of 401(k) and so on, and they have settled. So of course that’s going to be a pressure point.

Correction, Sept. 21, 2018: Due to an editing error, this article originally misspelled Laurene Powell Jobs’ first name.