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Benioff, Bezos, Jobs: Tech billionaires are going 'full Rosebud'

Daniel Roberts

In its Sept. 16 announcement that Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and his wife Lynne are purchasing Time Magazine for $190 million in cash, Meredith Corporation says right off the bat, “Mr. and Mrs. Benioff will not be involved in the day-to-day operations or journalistic decisions.” 

That’s what all the billionaires say when they personally purchase a print media property, and it isn’t completely true. Most critics say that a news publication can never be truly independent of the influence of its owner.

And of course, influence is the whole point.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post in 2013; eBay founder Pierre Omidyar backed First Look Media, which launched The Intercept, in 2013; Boston Red Sox owner John Henry, who made his money as a commodities broker, bought the Boston Globe in 2013; Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Steve Jobs, bought a majority stake in The Atlantic last year; biotech billionaire and NantHealth founder Patrick Soon-Shiong bought the L.A. Times this year.

These billionaires aren’t buying media properties for a return on investment; most of the publications are barely profitable, and the near-future health outlook for print media is poor. They’re buying them as vehicles of clout.

Graphic by David Foster/Oath

‘Seeking cultural sway and influence’

Another tech CEO buying another media outlet is “a sign of the times,” tweeted Andrew Yang, founder of the nonprofit fellowship Venture For America. “Publishing still has a very powerful place in society in shaping views and culture. But its financial viability is diminishing. Techies are in the opposite position – lots of money and seeking cultural sway and influence.”

For Benioff in particular, “The real reason why he wants to buy this is to increase his profile,” Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer said on our Final Round live show. “He wants to be more than just a software CEO billionaire. For many people that would be enough. For him, it is not enough — he wants to be a nationally known figure. More people know who Marc Benioff is today than in his entire life. Because he bought Time Magazine.”

Of course, billionaire individuals owning media properties is not a new phenomenon. Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who made his wealth as a securities broker, launched Bloomberg Media Group in 1981. Banker Bruce Wasserstein bought New York Magazine in 2004. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper last year.

‘The best fit for us’

What is new lately is that the money is all coming from tech. Even tech companies are doing it: Alibaba (not Jack Ma personally) bought the South China Morning Post in 2015.

By buying up print media, these moguls “go full Rosebud,” as DataTrek Research puts it in a note this week, a reference to the movie “Citizen Kane,” based on newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.

But raising your visibility by becoming a magazine or newspaper owner also carries political risk. For Jeff Bezos, it has meant numerous tweets from President Trump railing against the “Amazon Washington Post” and accusing the paper of being Amazon’s “chief lobbyist.”

Bezos mostly ignored Trump’s attacks on Twitter for the past year, until an interview last week at the Economic Club of Washington D.C., where Bezos said Trump should welcome media scrutiny, and that, “It is really dangerous to demonize the media. It is dangerous to call the media lowlifes, it is dangerous to say that they are the enemy of the people.”

On the other side of the political equation, American Media Inc CEO David Pecker repeatedly used The National Enquirer to support and help Trump, his personal friend, during the 2016 presidential campaign.

To be sure, billionaire ownership is not, in the eyes of journalists, necessarily bad news. The staff of Time is reportedly happy to have the Benioffs as the new stewards, and Bezos has been good for the growth of the Washington Post. (In fact, WWD reports that Time plans to add staff after the Benioff sale.) But Meredith rejected a $300 million offer from Pecker for some of the Time Inc. magazines last year, due to concerns about Pecker’s political motivations.

Benioff, too, has political causes he wants to promote. Axios, citing sources close to the Benioffs, reports that the couple believes “a generalist publication like Time could be more influential in the philanthropic areas they care most about, such as clean oceans.” If the couple is going to stay out of editorial decisions, why would owning the magazine help their philanthropic causes?

Time had revenue last year of $170 million. Benioff was rumored to be buying both Time and Fortune, right up until the news broke that he was only buying Time. In an interview with the New York Times, Benioff said, “I didn’t realize two weeks ago I was going to buy Time… Time is the best fit for us.” Time and Fortune are both only marginally profitable. So the decision to buy one over the other is likely based mostly on perceived cachet.

That leaves Fortune, Money Magazine, and Sports Illustrated still seeking a buyer. And lo and behold, one of the names rumored to be kicking the tires on Fortune is the Quicken Loans founder and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert.

If Gilbert or any other billionaire buys Fortune or Sports Illustrated, it won’t be because they expect a big financial return.

Disclosure: The author worked at Fortune from 2010 to 2016.

Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering media, sports and tech. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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