There's no safety in the embrace of billionaire owners

PUBLISHED: 13:00 22 November 2017

Rupert Murdoch

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CHRIS SUTCLIFFE on the media

News is too big a responsibility for billionaire owners to bear.

Last week, following the revelation that Disney had been in discussions to buy much of 21st Century Fox, there was speculation that the wider Murdoch media empire might not stick around too much longer. Lost among the noise was a deeper discussion about ownership models for news publications, which are changing just as rapidly as the titles themselves.

With the erosion of traditional business models, some commentators have been pinning the future of news publishing on the allure of being a media magnate, arguing that one of the most certain ways of ensuring a newsbrand’s survival is to have it bankrolled by a philanthropic billionaire.

On the one hand, that makes sense. With digital revenue growth far from a given, publishers need breathing room to create new products that might eventually pay for themselves.

It’s a luxury that isn’t afforded to many titles, ones that are instead forced to cut costs and diminish themselves.

On the other hand, it’s the definition of putting all the eggs in one basket. Last week, the billionaire owner of US local news sites Gothamist and DNAinfo shut down the publications, putting more than 100 people out of work immediately, and temporarily taking down the sites’ archives. While there was speculation that the closure might have been in response to members of the team unionising, owner Joe Ricketts wrote the decision was purely financial, stating that DNAinfo hadn’t made enough progress in terms of revenue “to support the tremendous effort and expense needed to produce the type of journalism on which the company was founded”.

That closure, though, has deprived people of a ‘neighbourhood’ news site that they once relied upon, and that held local power to account. And if that were the only example of a billionaire backer choosing to cut and run on a news site when things ran counter to their desires, it would be warning enough.

But other titles have been affected in a similar manner over the past few years. Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes purchased the New Republic with well-intentioned plans to transition the century-old brand to digital publishing, only to put it up for sale four years later, with the implication that the losses accrued over those years had dulled his enthusiasm for ownership, and the changes made in the meantime had arguably damaged the brand.

Even the most high-profile ‘success’ when it comes to a billionaire buying a newspaper – Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post – was as much a shrewd financial investment designed to support his other businesses as it was an act of philanthropy.

The problem with billionaire backers of newspapers, then, arises when they become disillusioned with some aspect of the news business, whether that’s financial losses or lack of editorial influence, or any number of reasons. The would-be modern media magnate can be just as capricious as any of us – relying on them to save the news industry is just as likely to get titles closed as any other form of ownership.

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