Can technology moguls save the news business?

  • Benioff is the latest technology mogul to invest in a media property
- KARA SWISHER

Sep 21, 2018-

“This is a start-up,” Marc Benioff told me loudly over FaceTime, leaning in and out of the frame on a bumpy ride to the airport. “They have been opportunity constrained,” he said, “but we are here to unshackle them.”

Was the billionaire founder and chief executive of Salesforce, the digital enterprise hotshot of San Francisco, talking about a new bitcoin company he was interested in investing in? Or perhaps a big opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a cool artificial intelligence start-up?

No. Mr.Benioff was enthusiastically touting one of the oldest and most storied publications in the United States, which he and his wife, Lynne, had just forked over $190 million in cash to buy.

That would be Time magazine, of course. It was indeed a start-up once—back in 1923, when it was founded by Briton Hadden and Henry Luce as the first weekly newsmagazine in the United States. After dominating journalism for quite a lot of the 20th century, the title fell on hard times in the internet age.

Its owner, Time Warner, tried. Remember Pathfinder, its ill-conceived online portal? What about the AOL-Time Warner merger, designed to be the spectacular marriage of analog and digital but fated to be one of the worst ever?

After endless corporate restructurings, management upheavals and sales, last year Time Inc. ended up with Meredith Corporation in a $2.8 billion all-cash deal. Then Meredith turned around and started peddling off the parts it did not want. That included Time, as well as Sports Illustrated and Fortune.

Mr.Benioff said he had been looking to extend the active personal investing—sometimes he calls it philanthropy—his family was doing already, in areas like climate change, public schools and health care for children. He said he looked at all the assets, such as Fortune, but was soon attracted to Time’s broader audience and wider circulation, as well as its pedigree of excellence. He claims that it is profitable, too, which was also an attraction.

“Time is a name that was most trusted for a rapidly changing society,” he said, one that still has “the ability to reach readers on a multidimensional level.”

Ticking off stats on the magazine’s readership, video views, event successes and digital impressions, Mr.Benioff sounded like a man on a mission to make us all understand that this brand of the past is surely the brand of the future.

And the jovial billionaire, who was wearing one of his endless supply of Hawaiian shirts, said he would be putting his copious money—$6.6 billion—where his voluble mouth is. He plans to give Time “as much investment as it needs” to succeed.

Mr.Benioff is not, of course, the first tech mogul to buy a diminished media asset recently. He joins a group that includes Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who bought The Washington Post; Laurene Powell Jobs, who has invested in The Atlantic and several other publications; and the biotech entrepreneur Patrick Soon-Shiong, who purchased The Los Angeles Times.

This media-buying binge can be explained in three simple words: Because they can. And maybe four more: Because media is cheap.

But there is more here, too, since each of these billionaires could afford to buy just about anything at all. Why a magazine and not a sports team, when media is a messier and less certain bet? Perhaps it’s because it offers a heady mix of altruism, power and ego.

But Mr.Benioff cautioned against the impulse to “lump all of us together,” noting that “each of us has different aims.”

Mr.Benioff describes his motivations like this: “I want Time to continue to be able to tell important stories.” He insisted he would not call the shots. “Honestly. I hope to not be operationally involved at all, because I have a high level of trust in the management there,” Mr.Benioff said. “I can communicate my vision, but I don’t expect to have much involvement.”

That’s pretty much the map set by Mr. Bezos, who has stuck to his promise to help The Washington Post financially and with tech and business advice since he acquired it in 2013 for $250 million. According to those there, he has been nearly silent even as President Trump has attacked him, Amazon and the newspaper regularly—and often in one all-encompassing tweet.

Mr. Trump often accuses Mr. Bezos of having bought the media company for influence and lobbying purposes, but so far it looks as if he just likes to own a paper that is now firing on all cylinders under his tenure.

It’s still too early to judge the stewardship of Ms. Jobs or Mr. Soon-Shiong, but both have indicated that they are just there to help and strengthen the Fourth Estate.

And while this is a laudable thing, journalists can’t help feeling slightly queasy for having to rely on the largess of a people whose wealth is a direct result of the same digital age that has chastened the once powerful media business.

It’s the ultimate irony: Those who almost killed us are making us stronger.

And it brings up another question: Can these media properties still serve as a check on their powerful tech owners? I asked Mr.Benioff this. After all, his industry has come under some much deserved scrutiny of late. Salesforce itself had gotten into some trouble over its contract with Customs and Border Protection to provide recruiting software. Despite protests by employees, Mr.Benioff declined to end the relationship, arguing that the products Salesforce provided were not directly related to the family separations at the Mexico border. Salesforce then pledged $1 million to help reunite families and matched employee donations to the cause.

“We welcome all these kinds of discussions wherever they occur and should not be afraid of them as an industry,” Mr.Benioff said. “We have to be open to talking about whose values, whose ethics and whose standards should prevail.”

That sounds a lot like how a capital-M Media Mogul should sound, I told him, which caused him to cackle.

 “Well, maybe you can teach me how to be a better one?” Mr.Benioff joked.

No, I cannot. But I can teach him one famous aphorism about what the true job of the news media is: To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Don’t get too comfortable, Marc Benioff.

—©2018 The New York Times     

Published: 21-09-2018 07:28

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