Time-d out: Tech billionaire buys magazine for 190 million Newsweeks

Welcome to the new Gilded Age of Journalism. The digital explosion has created a surfeit of tech billionaires looking for ways to increase their influence. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post; Facebook exec Chris Hughes bought The New Republic, selling it after four years; biotech tycoon Patrick Soon-Shiong bought the Los Angeles Times in June.

Add Mark Benioff to the list. The co-founder of Salesforce.com shelled out $190 million to buy Time Magazine away from Meredith Corporation, which picked up the title just a few months ago.

In an interview, Mr. Benioff said, “We’re investing in a company with tremendous impact on the world, one that is also an incredibly strong business. That’s what we’re looking for when we invest as a family.”

The Benioffs are optimistic about Time’s large audience and growing video business. “The power of Time is its unique story telling of the people and issues that affect us all and connect us all,” said Mrs. Benioff.

That’s a lot of money to spend on a dead-tree platform. At one time, you could buy 190 million Newsweeks for the same cash. The Wall Street Journal raises the same point:

Still, the couple will be taking over a publication whose business has been hammered from ongoing declines in print advertising and newsstand sales. Many magazines have struggled to transition into digital-first businesses as traditional sources of revenue have eroded. The Benioffs said they won’t have a role in day-to-day operations of the magazine or journalistic decisions. Mr. Benioff said the family doesn’t plan to acquire any other magazine titles from Meredith. …

One longtime publishing observer said the new owners will have to decide how often the print edition should publish, and how it can further adapt to readers increasingly accustomed to shorter, more focused news reporting.

“They will have to provide more information in less time and in less space,” said Samir Husni, director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi.

If this doesn’t make sense from a financial point of view, it might from a messaging strategy. However, Benioff claims he won’t involve himself in either operations or editorial functions, at least in this interview with the New York Times. Benioff claims Time has been “very profitable,” but the NYT interviewer zings Benioff on his proclaimed highest value in regard to Time:

Will you move Time magazine to San Francisco?

No, it will stay in New York. I’m not going to get involved operationally. We don’t get operationally involved in our investments. I’m busy enough with my job. They have a great team. It’s a very strong business. Very profitable.

Meredith will continue to be a key partner going forward.

Will you be involved spiritually?

I feel our values are aligned. Trust is my highest value and it is Time’s as well.

I thought journalism was Time’s highest value.

Not lately, it seems, nor is trust high up on its radar either. Maybe Benioff sees this as just an opportunity to infuse some capital into a journalistic institution, but that’s not really a business decision, either. That’s more a form of activism — perhaps for a very good cause, and perhaps for the highest virtues, but it’s still activism.

CBS notes that activism is close to the top of Benioff’s values as well:

Meredith announced that it was selling Time magazine for $190 million in cash to Benioff, one of four co-founders of Salesforce, a cloud computing pioneer and an executive known for social activism. Benioff, for instance, has criticized laws that could permit anti-gay discrimination and has spent millions to close the gender pay gap at Salesforce.

Interestingly, Benioff talked with CBS a few months ago demanding new regulation on social-media platforms. He insisted that the tech industry in the US is facing a “crisis of trust,” and also discussed his track record as an “activist CEO”:

After listening to that interview and Benioff’s insistence on CEO activism, just how likely does it seem that his fingers won’t get into the reporting at the magazine he owns? Close to nil, but it likely won’t raise too many concerns in the rest of the media. Had Rush Limbaugh or the Mercers bought Time Magazine, you can bet those concerns would have been raised immediately.

However, that’s up to Benioff — it’s his magazine now, and he can set the editorial direction in any way he sees fit. Tycoon ownership in media has a long and not-always-glorious history, but it also ends up funding relatively accessible reporting on issues that matter, too. In today’s world, those tycoons have a lot more competition than they did in the days of William Randolph Hearst, and more grassroots accountability, too. If it gets too slanted and activist, it will lose readers, reporters, and editors, as Hughes discovered with his short stewardship of The New Republic. Frankly, it might not be possible to lose more trust with readers these days, so if Benioff plans on activism in favor of boosting the credibility of journalism, he’s got a pretty good opportunity to demonstrate some improvement at Time.

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