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Tue Jul 9, 2019, 03:34 PM

Billionaires are saving journalism. Yes, that's right


Over the past several years, billionaires have been collecting legacy journalism titles, namely beloved newspapers. At first, many of us in journalism were wary that this would stifle a free press, blur the line between editorial and ownership, and ruin what historian Jill Lepore recently referred to as "the taproot of modern journalism."

However, we naysayers may have been premature in our judgment. Even-handed billionaire owners have been able to invest in legacy titles and help them transform digitally, giving them the chance to compete against the onslaught of unregulated third-party content polluting social media channels. Unlike hedge funds like Alden Global Capital, which owns Digital First Media, individual billionaire owners tighten the business model while funding new innovation and digital expertise.

Wealthy families have long owned media. The fabled father-daughter handoff of The Washington Post from Eugene Meyer to his son-in-law Philip Graham onto Katharine Graham, who inherited full control of the newspaper after her husband's suicide, is now a thing of Hollywood. The Bancrofts owned The Wall Street Journal, which they sold to Rupert Murdoch's News Corp in 2007. The Ochs-Sulzberger family controls the publicly traded New York Times. The Newhouse sons, S.I and Donald, were born into one of the country's most powerful publishing families and inherited Conde Nast, which includes Vogue, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. Of course, that was before the internet undercut the advertising-supported business model that had fueled newspapers for generations.

So, what is new? Today, when so many newspapers are struggling to barely hang on, buyers are digitally savvy, often live in the city where the paper is published and appear to care about democracy.

Take The Washington Post. When Jeff Bezos bought it for $250 million in 2013, the paper was struggling. The Graham family legacy appeared doomed thanks to Google, Facebook and Twitter. But Bezos understood the far-reaching power of both The Washington Post brand and the limitless delivery of news in a digital era. His funding has enabled the paper to think far beyond its zip code and transform to compete and integrate into digital platforms.

I've seen it firsthand with the WaPo. I didn't want the Sunday print version murdering innocent trees and piling up on my doorstep when I just want the digital version. Any Amazon Prime member anywhere can get WaPo digital only so I signed up for that. WaPo has some quality journalism most of the time and prints things that makes our president very uncomfortable. And I want more of that.


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