Another Rich Guy Buys a Newspaper

By Jack Limpert

The Sheldon Adelson family is showing why rich guys should think twice before buying a newspaper (Politico’s Jack Shafer said today the family has yet to ruin the Las Vegas Review-Journal but he wouldn’t put the possibility past them). Here’s a 2014 post with added perspective on rich guys journalism.

Over the weekend I talked with several writers about why someone like Jeff Bezos would want to buy the Washington Post and why so many rich guys want to be in journalism. In some cases you can make a good guess, in some cases it’s probably more than one reason, and in some cases it’s a mystery.

Mort Zuckerman, who made billions in commercial real estate, bought the Boston-based Atlantic in 1980 and Washington-based U.S. News in 1984 and it seems clear that he liked being in Washington, writing a back-page political column for U.S. News, and appearing weekly on political talk shows. He seemed to find political and media people more interesting than real estate developers, and he may have been looking for some power and influence in the nation’s capital.

David Bradley, who founded the Advisory Board in 1979 and made many millions helping businesses adopt best-practices, bought the National Journal in 1997 and in 1999 bought the Atlantic from Zuckerman, moving the magazine from Boston to DC in 2005. People who work for Bradley say he loves to interview people who have interesting minds and then to hire some of them.

The backgrounds of the two men couldn’t be more different: Zuckerman was born in Quebec, his father owned a tobacco and candy store, his grandfather was an Orthodox rabbi. Bradley was born in Washington, D.C., his father was an executive with General Electric, his parents were devout Christian Scientists.

What they had in common was education: Zuckerman got a B.A. and law degree from McGill, an M.B.A. from Wharton, and an L.L.M. from the Harvard Law School. Bradley graduated from Swarthmore, was a Fulbright Scholar, got an M.B.A. from Harvard and then a J.D. from Georgetown.

Zuckerman may have made money owning the Atlantic, U.S. News, and the New York Daily News, but probably not much. At U.S. News he went through editors like Kleenex. One was the great essayist Roger Rosenblatt, at sea as the editor of a weekly newsmagazine. Zuckerman almost hired one man—a very smart newsmagazine guy—who was savvy enough to demand a year’s severance pay if he got fired but Zuckerman wouldn’t go along with that.

Bradley probably is making money with the National Journal and the Atlantic, but the numbers aren’t public and it’s hard to measure financial success when you’re just reading PR releases. Bradley hires smart editors, such as James Bennet at the Atlantic, and nurtures and keeps them.

When Joe Allbritton bought the Washington Star and its television stations in 1975, he likely saw the TV stations as the valuable assets and the afternoon Star, in a losing battle with the morning Washington Post, as something to be sold to the next hopeful buyer, which turned out to be Time Inc. It bought the Star in 1978, had no clue about the newspaper business, and folded it in 1981.

Zuckerman and Bradley got into journalism to have a more interesting life; Allbritton saw it as a way to make money. Joe’s son, Robert, is selling the TV stations for almost a billion dollars, with some of that money now available to fund the growth of Politico.

Michael Bloomberg? Is he in the news business to make money, to have a more interesting life? Probably some of both.

John Henry? Did he buy the Boston Globe to have a more interesting life and because he loves Boston? Probably some of both.

Warren Buffett? He’s made it clear he sees newspapers away from big metro areas—papers in places like Richmond and Tulsa—as sensible investments.

eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, Glenn Greenwald, and First Look Media? It seems more ideological than the others.

Facebook billionaire Chris Hughes and the New Republic? Probably to have a more interesting life.

The big question is Amazon’s Jeff Bezos: Why did he pay $250 million for the Washington Post? At Amazon, he’s playing a long game, building relationships with consumers, not yet making much profit. He seems very smart and tough. Does he see the Post as a print and digital operation he can experiment with, something that can be combined with selling books, selling Kindles, selling most anything? Is he also looking for some power and influence in the nation’s capital?

All these guys and their money—journalists have to be mostly thankful that for reasons of altruism, personal satisfaction, or profit-seeking they’re investing in newspapers and magazines and their digital extensions, preserving lots of good writing jobs, often creating more of them.

P.S. It’s usually rich guys but not always. In 2003, Joan Kroc gave $200 million to National Public Radio, which has used the money to hire many good journalists. She was the widow of Ray Kroc, founder of the McDonald’s fast food chain.

A comment from Mike Feinsilber:

Sun Myung Moon, who started the Washington Times in 1982, should be added to the list of rich guys entering journalism. Moon, a South Korean, was head of the Unification Church, and through his News World Communications started the Washington Times a year after the Washington Star folded. He saw the Washington Times as a conservative alternative to the more liberal Washington Post, and he said, “The Washington Times is responsible to let the American people know about God.” Many of the journalists who worked at the Washington Times had worked at the Star.

Estimated losses at the Washington Times over the past 33 years? More than $2 billion; Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post in October 2013 for $250 million.

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