So it can be difficult to judge the outcomes of these acquisitions, except by comparison.
The clearest struggles are at the Washington Post, which effectively admitted defeat last year in its attempts to rebuild its core as a scalable tech business with products called Zeus and Arc. Now it’s simply a media company that battled The New York Times for Trump scoops but has no answer to its rival’s success in other areas, such as cooking, audio, and games. Bezos visited last week to calm a restive newsroom.
The others follow a similar,if less publicly painful, pattern. The Los Angeles Times has rebuilt its newsroom and improved its local lifestyle coverage, but its strategy remains adrift under Soon-Shiong, who has taken the title of “Executive Chairman” and has not appointed a CEO.
Time has morphed into a global events business with a studio that, I’m told, accounts for about a third of its revenue, and which hopes to break even this year. It’s gradually converting its print product to a US News-style compendium of lists. But it has struggled for relevance in national news — it ranks 43rd in Memeorandum’s analysis of presence in the political conversation, and in December had just over a third of the traffic of another shaky brand of its era, Newsweek, according to Comscore.
Two journalists said they were relieved when editor-in-chief Edward Felsenthal, who had been the company’s CEO since Benioff acquired it, returned full-time to the newsroom late last year.
Omidyar is the only one of the group so far to exit the business entirely. He bet on a fantasy that a movie studio would would subsidize his news business at First Look, but finally gave up and this year — with the support of the journalists at the Intercept — cut the outsidery news organization loose and handed it over to its general counsel, David Bralow and editor, Roger Hodge, as an independent nonprofit.
“I’m guessing that it’s proven difficult for them all because it is the sort of business that needs and deserves full attention,” said Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, a tycoon who has given much of his wealth to journalistic causes, including nonprofit local news organizations and reporters’ security. Newmark said he had never seriously considered taking over a media company himself. “People in business who don’t know anything about media might perceive it as easy — in that case they just haven’t done their homework.”
The challenge is in part that during the period when the billionaires emerged as white knights, alternate models seemed hopeless, with print in ruins and the promise of social media collapsing. (I was the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News at the time, and we too dreamed of a billionaire savior.)
But since then, distinct models have emerged. Local nonprofits have begun to serve some of the functions of accountability and state government news from Sacramento to Mississippi, seeking billionaires’ — and the other 99.99%’s — money, but little else. The emergence of digital subscriptions gave organizations from the Times to tiny Substacks a stable source of revenue, provided they could connect intensely with an audience. Washington proved a fruitful starting point for a new generation of companies including Politico, Axios, and Punchbowl News. (Semafor is riding some of the same currents.)
Survival without a billionaire requires the kind of obsessive execution and low-key panic that Benioff, Bezos, Omidyar, and Soon-Shiong brought to the early days of the companies that made them rich. Now they own the only news organizations that aren’t running scared.
“Everyone thought the billionaires could save us — clearly, they’re not engaged,” grumbled one executive at a billionaire-owned newsroom. “It’s not a good model because they lose interest or they get pissy.”
Building — or reinventing — a brand in the shadow of a billionaire has its challenges, too. Benioff was the only one of the group to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, a place where, as CNBC’s Joe Kiernan groused, billionaires tell millionaires what regular people think.
Time was the beneficiary of his second-hottest party in the Swiss ski town, a Monday evening affair that didn’t rival the week’s hottest ticket, the Thursday night Salesforce party, with surprise guest The Pretenders.
Benioff said in a text message that he’s committed to the media outlet. “We just had a great Davos with Time,” he said.