“I think it would be fun to run a newspaper”

Billionaires buying newspapers, whether for vanity or public service, may be the best hope for the future of journalism.

The past 20 years have not been good for the newspaper business. Print journalism was disrupted by the internet with little warning. Much of the advertising revenue that sustained print journalism has been transferred to Google and Facebook, leaving most newspapers a shell of their former selves. 

Some of the best-known newspapers in America have disappeared, others have suspended their print editions and some have reduced the frequency of publication to the most profitable days (Thursday, Friday and Sunday).

At the USC Annenberg Center for the Digital Future, we have seen for 18 years that interest in news and information is greater than it has ever been. However, that interest does not translate into reading newspapers. Every time a print newspaper reader dies, he or she is not replaced by a new reader. The ultimate outcome is clear and inevitable.

In the midst of this bad news, there are some encouraging developments, especially at four of America’s most prominent newspapers: The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.

In the first days of the internet, leading newspapers saw digital as more of a friend than a threat. Business (advertising) was booming, and profit margins were at 30 percent or more. Papers opened separate digital divisions as a supplement — rather than a replacement — to the print editions.

The newspapers were so successful that they provided internet news for free, even without subscribing to the paper. But within a few years, the real threat of digital became clear: Why pay for news when Google and lots of websites provided it for free?

After some experimentation and a few missteps, all four of these newspapers are now behind paywalls. Some allow readers access to as many as 20 stories each month before they have to pay, or open their access to everyone on days of critically important news (presidential elections, for example). Digital subscriptions are booming, and The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal sell more digital subscriptions than print papers. 

Although the fear at first was that print advertising dollars would be “trading print advertising dollars for digital pennies,” the revenue is finally substantial and goes a long way to funding the papers.

The other and more interesting development — and the one that will sustain our best newspapers for generations or more — is what I call “The Charles Foster Kane Model of Newspaper Ownership.”

In Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ brilliant, groundbreaking 1941 film in which he starred and directed, Charles Foster Kane, in a thinly veiled portrait of William Randolph Hearst, takes over The New York Inquirer (a fictional newspaper) because “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.”

Today, several massively rich billionaires are buying trophy newspapers in some of our biggest cities. It is not always clear whether they are buying them out of civic commitment or personal ego — but that doesn’t matter if they respect the long tradition of the wall between the publisher (who writes the editorials) and the journalists who cover the news.

Recent examples of this include Jeff Bezos buying The Washington Post, Rupert Murdoch acquiring The Wall Street Journal, and Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong’s purchase of the Los Angeles Times, while The New York Times continues under control of the family that has owned it for generations.

Jeff Bezos – The Washington Post

Bezos, the master of creating businesses and making money, did not, I believe, buy The Post as an investment. Bezos knew the paper was in trouble and was probably a few years from closing or being sold to anyone who could buy it at a fire sale price.   

Bezos buying The Post did far more than save it. He pumped money into it, added to the staff (the only major newspaper to expand its staff in the last 10 years), built a new headquarters, and restored the morale that employees hadn’t felt in years. The Post is a better paper than it has ever been, and it is winning Pulitzer Prizes and succeeding by any measure. 

Rupert Murdoch – The Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal was owned for generations by the Bancroft family. The problem with family ownership is that by the third generation the family is so large and the wealth has been spread so thin (see the Los Angeles Times below) that liquidating a declining asset becomes appealing.

Murdoch, at his core a newspaperman, has always wanted The Journal. Murdoch understood that to turn the paper into a print version of Fox News would destroy its value. His team does write the editorials (which are conservative), but Murdoch leaves no discernible fingerprints on the news content. When investors pressured Murdoch to sell his newspapers, he refused, put the newspapers into a separate company (News Corporation), and filled it with valuable assets to protect it. While The Journal’s future post-Murdoch is unknown, currently the paper is thriving.

Patrick Soon-Shiong – the Los Angeles Times

At the Los Angeles Times, Soon-Shiong’s purchase ended the paper’s agonizing decline at the hands of the Tribune Company (under the most frightening name in corporate history: Tronc). While it is too early to see Soon-Shiong’s long-term plans — other than a publicly-stated commitment to returning the Times to greatness — his first step was a good one: hiring highly-respected, veteran journalist Norman Pearlstine to be the executive editor of the paper. For the Los Angeles Times, these steps represent major progress.

The Sulzbergers – The New York Times

As for The New York Times — America’s newspaper of record is the only one of the four here that is still under long-term family control by the Sulzbergers. The Sulzberger family wealth has also been spread thin, but they are determined to keep the paper in their hands. At the end of 2017, longtime publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. was replaced by his 37-year-old son, Arthur Greg (A.G.) Sulzberger.

Instead of selling, the Sulzberger’s will continue to invest in and improve the paper. 

So, at least for these four newspapers, the future looks much brighter than the recent past — thanks, ironically, to visionary billionaires who are looking past the bottom line to a mission much greater than profits. Although Charles Foster Kane did not respect the line between editorials and independent journalism and used the paper to further his own business and political goals, the model Welles created in his classic movie has become the best hope for the survival of great journalism.