The pandemic will put billionaires’ commitment to journalism to the test

The outcry could flow to Laurene Powell Jobs, the largest owner of the Atlantic, after news came Thursday that the magazine had fired nearly 20 percent of its staff. But she won’t be the last billionaire owner of a major newscast that will have to make tough decisions in the coming weeks.

In the past decade, billionaires such as Powell Jobs have picked up prestigious media outlets and won respect of those who saw these deals as a form of civil leadership and public service. Of course, not every publication could be bought by a billionaire, but those who did would have hit the jackpot.

This pandemic will test the commitment of these billionaires to journalism.

The Atlantic’s announcement that it had fired 68 staff caused considerable anger on Powell Jobs in particular and billionaires in general on Thursday. What’s the point of having a billionaire owner if they’re not going to spend their billions to maintain their wealth?

And that’s why it will be so revealing to see if the outlet billionaire billionaires treat their employees differently than the hedge funds, public shareholders or media conglomerates who own everything else. Layoffs from the Atlantic – or those announced to Protocol last month, a just-released tech publication owned by billionaire Roger Allbritton – shows that a billionaire owner doesn’t make a publication immune to a struggling economy.

Since the coronavirus pandemic has shrunk the economy and advertising budgets, this has been the case hit the media particularly hardeven those who have tried to grow their recurring revenue models through subscriptions.

Marc Benioff, the founder of Salesforce, will have to make tough decisions about Time Magazine, the historic publication he bought last year. The Red Sox’s billionaire owner John Henry will have them at the Boston Globe he bought in 2013. And Jeff Bezos, of course, will have them at the Washington Post he bought that same year.

And what decisions these billionaires are making will tell of a larger trend: have their purchases in recent years been an expression of pure philanthropy – a charity commitment they expect to lose, or at least be willing to lose – if she and their admirers have they made, or are they a financial investment and therefore subject to the same cold, hard math that applies to companies like Amazon or Salesforce?

Until now it was not always clear. Billionaires have often disguised these media bets with the language of philanthropy, even as recent decisions that could test rhetoric. The priority of dollars and cents has always lurked.

When the Atlantic deal was announced in 2017, Powell Jobs called the publication “one of the most important and enduring journalistic institutions in the country,” and spoke eloquently about the publication’s 160-year history and ties to Ralph Waldo Emerson. , after whom her philanthropy, Emerson Collective, is named.

When Benioff spent $ 190 million to buy time, editors there said they were confident that Benioff would put journalism above money. Benioff has promised to protect the jobs of journalists until the end of June, but any long-term consequences need to be determined.

“More than ever, the truth is important. Facts are important. Values ​​are important. Whatever organization, company or institution we belong to, we must realize that we are not separate from the larger social problems that surround us. We have a responsibility not only to make a profit, but also to make the world a better place, ” Benioff wrote in Time last yearbefore calling for an investment in the free press. “That’s why my wife Lynne and I decided to become TIME owners a year ago.”

Always left unsaid in the press releases and interviews are the brand value and strength that the wealthy have achieved for generations by owning publications. Critics claim that the billionaire’s possession of media channels anchors their power and creates conflicts of interest, but that prestige has also been an incentive.

But what is forgotten amid the rhetoric of billionaires “saving” publications from despair is that these are corporations, not even billionaires, endless sources of money.

When biopharma family billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong bought the struggling Los Angeles Times, he said he did not see it as a philanthropic commitment but as an “institutional public trust in a private environment,” compared to Stanford or Harvard. But he was clear it had to be profitable. His paper was announced last month steep cuts, including a new workshare program for its journalists.

One problem is that too many people saw these acquisitions as mere acts of benevolence from billionaires – an idealistic idea that already had a reality check in the early days of the effects of the pandemic. A billionaire who does not address the fundamental business problems of a publication may actually be doing a really good job for the world. But these are business people, and even that generosity will come under pressure and prove temporary. The most esteemed, brightest billionaire owners, such as Bezos, have helped transform their publications for the digital age. Their money allows for long-term change.

Indeed, there were signs of a rebirth to the Atlantic Ocean, which has yielded definitive stories of the pandemic, adding 90,000 subscribers since March, for a total of 450,000. And that is why so many people scratched their heads on Thursday.

One thing is certain: the crisis caused by the corona virus for the economy and the media sector does not start and end. The billionaires who have won our admiration for their civic virtue will tell us more about their actions than their words in the coming months.

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