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Why tech billionaires are buying American newsrooms

Alanna Petroff
Senior Economics Correspondent at Yahoo Finance UK

Some billionaires buy sports teams. Others buy newsrooms.

The outspoken leader of Salesforce (CRM), Marc Benioff, bought Time Magazine this weekend; the latest wealthy tech entrepreneur to take control of a highly regarded news outlet.

Salesforce founder and co-CEO Marc Benioff is buying Time Magazine. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

This comes five years after Amazon founder Jeff Bezos finalised his purchase of The Washington Post and a year after Laurene Powell Jobs – the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs – announced her organisation was taking a majority stake in The Atlantic, an American news magazine.

“It seems to be a growing phenomenon of newly wealthy owners of big tech companies … for some reason they’re attracted to old-fashioned legacy media,” Steven Barnett, communications professor at the University of Westminster, told Yahoo Finance.

Ego and politics

The reasoning behind such purchases can be multifaceted.

First and foremost, it’s about prestige, said Ian Whittaker, a media analyst at Liberum in the UK.

“There’s an element of the trophy [purchase] that’s coming through here,” he said. “Buying these sorts of assets give you access” and make you associated with a name-brand organisation.

“You essentially buy them not because of the economic return, but because you quite like having control of those assets,” he said.

Barnett, who is writing a book about international media ownership, backs up this assessment. “It could be an ego boost [to buy a legacy news agency],” he said.

The purchase could open doors, possibly nabbing the new owner invitations to the White House or other high-level political meetings.

The tech billionaires could be thinking, “‘I quite like the idea of being part of the political game, not [only] part of the corporate game’,” said Barnett.

There’s also the appeal of having influence in setting the national news agenda and playing a role in guiding coverage priorities within your newsroom.

The Washington Post under Bezos, for instance, led an explosive investigation last year into former Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore and his sexual encounter with a minor. The paper has also done trailblazing journalism into US President Donald Trump and his charitable giving claims.

Bezos said in a tweet last week his “stewardship of the Washington Post” provides “support [to] American democracy.”

Trump has been critical of Bezos, tweeting insults about Amazon (AMZN) and his newspaper.

Barnett believes that individuals in the tech industry – a business generally dominated by liberal personalities – may feel inclined to get involved in news following the Brexit referendum and the election of Trump in 2016.

“If you’ve been disturbed by some of the populist, white-nationalist tendencies in some social media … then I can see why you might be drawn to having a hand into what news is being created,” he said.

Time Magazine is known for its critiques of the Trump presidency and frequently feature Trump cartoons on the cover. A cover in August showed Trump drowning in the Oval Office.

Turnaround opportunities

Another reason to get into the news business? Tech bigwigs may think they have the skill and drive to save the struggling news industry, which must fight to maintain advertising revenue while exploring new monetisation and subscription opportunities.

“I can see the attraction [in buying] a failing industry,” said Barnett. “It could just be a business challenge, but it’s a strange business to choose.”

Benioff and his wife Lynne Benioff are buying Time Magazine for $190m in cash from Meredith Corporation (MDP). They said in a press release on Sunday they “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.”

Time Magazine’s print edition has an audience of nearly 19 million American readers. The publication said it reaches a combined global audience of 100 million readers in print and online.