Billionaires and magazines

TimeNorman

Montagu Norman the cover of Time in 1929

Marc Benioff’s purchase of the magazine Time for $190 million seems to be part of a trend: billionaires buying prestigious magazines and newspapers. The trend includes Michael Bloomberg buying Businessweek, Laurene Powell Jobs investing in the Atlantic and Jeff Bezos buying and investing in the Washington Post. So why are these software billionaires buying such challenged assets at prices that are at least respectable in comparison to the valuations that might have been offered by traditional media investors? Billionaires are not buying prestigious book publishers or TV channels. What is so special about magazines?

It is suggested that one reason for acquiring these opinion-making publishers is that their owner thereby gains a degree of political and cultural influence. But this surely is not the whole story. $190 million spent on lobbying and pressure groups would buy the Benioffs a lot of direct influence in Washington and Brussels —  if that is what they really seek. Cultural influence is another matter, but cultural influence is only guaranteed to the owners of these publications if the publications continue to thrive (and have influence) in a digital environment. These publications have, and are surely seen by their new investors to have, a promising digital future. That is why they are buying.

So, the more interesting conclusion is that software billionaires understand that magazines in the digital age have a reach and a momentum that may not be accessible to other common forms of digital content. Consider the alternatives:

  • as a digital asset music is wonderful but short on cognitive content and it is really only owned by its composers, performers, and the audience
  • social media, has enormous leverage and currency (Marc Benioff was after all keen to buy Twitter ). But social media is anarchic, potentially polluting or reputation-wrecking, as Facebook is discovering. So if Salesforce owned Twitter it might have bought itself a lot more grief and no direct political leverage (which justifies the Salesforce investors who vetoed Benioff’s moves).
  •  blogging and podcasting are dynamic and cognitively rich forms of digital culture, but they share with social media the problem that they are somewhat anarchic and lack staying power, predictable cultural direction and cognitive position.

Why might the Benioffs, Powell Jobs, and Bloomberg value the cultural direction and cognitive position of the magazines that they have bought? The answer to this question (and a similar question about the Washington Post) is obvious. These media properties have a reasonably stable, desirable and persistent character — not just in their editorial, also in their style and audience. Time has a predictable, long running (recall the archive is 95 years deep), and persistent effect on the political climate of the USA and to a degree the Western alliance. Investing in Time is much more politically and culturally focussed than an investment in a social media or blogging platform.

But I think there is another issue here. Magazines and newspapers are reliably persistent (if no longer strictly periodical) in a way that reinforces and clarifies their cultural and intellectual position. Most digital media is not predictably positioned and influential in a specific cultural niche. When you buy a magazine — whether as subscriber or owner — you know what you are buying. So we should expect to see more premium titles being acquired by wealthy patrons who understand that a properly curated cultural icon (the New Yorker, the Economist, Vogue etc) is bound to increase its influence and its brand value in the super-fluid mix of digital content that we now inhabit. Precisely because the cognitive and cultural direction of these properties is well known and reliable, they have a centrality in the digital mix that is now quite hard to achieve and maintain. From this standpoint it perhaps makes sense that the Meredith corporation has found it hard to sell Sports Illustrated or Fortune but Time has found a savvy acquirer. There is nothing wrong with those two brands but they perhaps do not have the unusual position or depth that Time may promise to retain.

If this analysis is correct, it follows that brand values and reputations attaching to magazines are even more important in the digital age than they were in the print environment 30 years ago. Perhaps this explains another flurry of outrage from the last week. Ian Buruma was rather summarily and unexpectedly fired from his job as editor of the New York Review of Books for publishing (and perhaps offensively defending) a controversial and ill-advised essay by a #MeToo culprit. Firing the editor for his poor editorial judgement (a first offence) hardly fits the reputation of the NYRB, but this is an area in which the reputation of the publication might have been even more severely compromised by the essay concerned. In Reddit or Twitter the Jian Gomeshi/Buruma offence would have been an insignificant moment, for the magazine it was — the owners deemed — unpardonable. There is irony in the instant and viral outrage around the affair largely taking place on social media, and this is perhaps a warning for those elite reputations that make a stellar magazine brand. These billionaire owners should be hands off but they might advise their editors in the following terms: “try to avoid mixing your editorial approach with the climate and emotions in the hottest digital content maelstrom. That maelstrom churns every day and it might burn out brand”.