What Will Happen to Media When All the Billionaires Bail?

And Where's the Next Generation of Richie Riches Willing to Take Losses on Worthy Media Properties?

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If you're a certain sort of still-employed media person, you're probably wondering how much longer you can hold on to your job. But the larger question might be: Just how unreal -- illusory, delusional, unmoored from the realities of the marketplace -- has your job been all along?

I've been thinking about this a lot lately in regard to the coming passing of the media billionaires. Nobody likes to admit this, but much of the best of contemporary journalism has been produced, and continues to get produced, simply because of the largess -- and the emotional needs -- of a small group of rich people. The struggling New York Times, for instance, still produces good journalism mainly because the Sulzbergers, who control the Times Co., see themselves as guardians of a public trust. (Let's hope their loan shark, Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim -- who coughed up $250 million last year with some scary strings attached so the paper could refinance some burdensome debt -- continues to smile on that mission.) For 105 years, the Bancroft family thought of themselves similarly -- until suddenly they didn't, at which point they offloaded The Wall Street Journal to Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

Murdoch's purchase of the Journal is itself, of course, a grand ego-driven folly, which he's only underscored lately by funding the creation of a metro desk at the paper. Let's face it, there is no strategic need for the Journal to get into a local-reporting turf war with The New York Times (this is really more about Murdoch's grudge match with the Sulzbergers), and so let's also be blunt: When old man Murdoch dies, the Journal, his baby, will suddenly be vastly less interested in covering local politics and such. (And News Corp.'s interest in continuing to own the WSJ will likely evaporate too.)

Rupert Murdoch turns 79 next month, by the way.

Billionaire investment banker Bruce Wasserstein was just 61 when he died last fall after being admitted to the hospital with an irregular heartbeat. Bruce owned New York Magazine, where I spent many of my happiest years as a "serious" (and, well, not-so-serious) journalist. I was thinking of Bruce last week because of the news that my old colleague Hugo Lindgren, who worked under NY Mag Editor in Chief Adam Moss as editorial director, was leaving ... for Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Hmmm, I thought. He's leaving the warm embrace of one money-losing media property that's owned by the estate of a dead billionaire to go to work for another money-losing media property that's owned by a still-living billionaire.

Well, I suppose, good for Hugo -- good for any journalists who can still eke out a living, and do good work, on a billionaire's dime. (God bless us, every one!) But then I thought: Where's the next generation of media Richie Riches who are willing to take losses on worthy properties? For that matter, how much more patience does the current generation of Richie Riches have left? Never mind the Bancrofts. Billionaire Sam Zell has been badly battered by his quixotic quest to turn around Tribune Co. The gilded Forbes family, a few years back, sold 40% of the parent company of Forbes magazine to an investment group (that includes, hilariously, Bono). Octogenarian billionaire Si Newhouse has basically gotten out of the business of propping up prestige publications at Condé Nast for corporate/familial glory, as signaled by the closure of half a dozen magazines in the past year (only the money-losing New Yorker still gets a pass). And a couple weeks ago, perhaps most poignantly, even John R. MacArthur, the president/publisher of nonprofit Harper's Magazine -- his family foundation keeps the lights on -- appeared to be panicking, suddenly sacking his longtime editor and complaining to his staff that (according to a Times report) "the mainstream media is ignoring it to death." (No fair plowing millions of your family's money into a magazine only to get ignored!)

Much has been written about the death of journalism, blah blah, as the margins at once-great publishing companies vanish. But something else is vanishing too: the old black magic that drew deep-pocketed backers to media ownership because media (specifically newspapers and magazines) offered them ample other rewards (regardless of the state of the balance sheet). Like, prestige. A place at the table. Access to the halls of power.

But now bloggers can get White House press credentials. A thousand people retweeting a link to an amateur YouTube video can set the day's political agenda. And the chattering class may have stopped reading Harper's, but over at Forbes, they're eating up PerezHilton.com; the magazine just named Hilton No. 1 on the "Web Celeb 25" for the third year in a row.

A lot of the loudest new players in media, in other words, have no use at all for billionaire benefactors. Now, given that billionaire benefactors seem increasingly inclined to grumpily gather up all their marbles and go home, that's a good thing -- unless, of course, you're one of the scary number of journalistically inclined media people whose entire career, or what's left of it, still hinges on how some old rich dude feels about himself this morning.

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