I have a suspicion that every Tech industry mogul has, at some point, visited Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California. William Randolph Hearst, a newspaper magnate of the early-mid 20th century, had it built in the 1910s-1920s and it is still an impressive sight today. The guesthouses are +5,000 square feet each, and the main dwelling runs over 60,000 square feet. The pool area has a tremendous view of the surrounding mountains and is decorated with facades reminiscent of ancient Rome.
It is enough to impress the most jaded Silicon Valley billionaire, and they must think “Hmmm… There must be money to be made in newspapers somehow. This guy did it and he didn’t even have a computer. I can do this.”
That is the most generous interpretation we can cobble together for why so many Tech execs are buying newspapers – an industry the Valley and its global counterparts have severely damaged. A few examples:
- Today’s news that Salesforce founder Marc Benioff is buying Time magazine from Meredith Corporation for $190 million.
- Amazon’s Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post in 2013 for $250 million.
- Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve’s widow, taking a majority stake in The Atlantic magazine in 2017.
- The June 2018 purchase of the Los Angeles Times by biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong for $500 million and $90 billion of assumed pension liabilities.
- Alibaba’s 2015 acquisition of Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post.
Jack Ma of Alibaba probably had the best explanation for why a Tech exec wants to own a newspaper and (presumably) shape how it delivers information: “I believe the most important thing for the media is to be objective, fair and balanced. We should not report a story with preconceptions or prejudice.” This is what you would expect a data-oriented person to say. They want information from all sides so they can make their own decisions. He went on to say, “Sometimes, people look at things purely from a Western or Eastern perspective – that is one sided.”
The more cynical argument around all this Tech industry interest in “old media” is somewhat different: Big Tech knows it is creating large scale social disruption (and there is more to come), so owning a branded media outlet is the best way to shape public opinion in their favor. And since Silicon Valley tends to sit to the left of the political spectrum, they may also want to support that agenda. Given that all the news outlets purchased by US execs have center-left editorial slants, that explanation has some resonance.
In the end, we suspect political motives play second fiddle to intellectual pride (“I can fix this…”) and a little bit of billionaire “trophy hunting”. Newspapers are a long way from Hearst’s day, when they were the only way the average American got their information and read editorial opinion pieces. Tech execs know that better than most.
But they still want that castle…