Billionaire John Henry bought the Boston Globe earlier this month. Billionaire Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post just days later.
They’re following a path blazed by billionaire Sam Zell, who bought the Tribune Company, including the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, in 2007, and ran it into bankruptcy; billionaire Rupert Murdoch, who bought the Wall Street Journal the same year; and billionaire Warren Buffett, who in 2012 bought two groups of newspaper companies: Lee Enterprises, publisher of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Media General, whose flagship is the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Also on that path is billionaire Donald Sussman, who bought the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal, and the Morning Sentinel in 2012.
Folks with that kind of money often aren’t too fond of being told what to do, but they also didn’t get to the top by reinventing other people’s broken wheels. Where Sussman’s paper has paved the way, Henry and Bezos should consider following.
Here’s what these billionaires should do — not just because fellow ten-to-the-ninthers are doing it, but because it works.
First, take themselves out of the picture. Sussman, as a hedge-fund manager, is probably more used to this sort of thing than Henry, who owns media-magnet properties including the Boston Red Sox and the Liverpool Football Club. And Bezos, as founder and CEO of Amazon.com, is hardly a stranger to the spotlight. Zell, for his part, kept putting the spotlight on himself; Murdoch can’t seem to duck away. Buffett’s holdings are too far-flung for him to be in the local mix too regularly. But then, if Bezos allots his attention according to financial proportions, the Post will take up 1 percent of his time — that’s how much he spent of his $25-billion fortune to buy it.
The more the news, and the paper as a whole, are independent of the heavy hitter behind the scenes, the better for all involved. Readers will appreciate getting information through an editorial process with integrity (which should definitely include ownership disclosures in every story where that’s relevant). Journalists will dig for truth and understanding rather than spin and marketing. Advertisers will come to understand they simply don’t carry enough financial clout to sway coverage. And the owners themselves will avoid all sorts of questions about ethics, improper influence, and messing with the public trust. They should hire respectable, reputable journalistic leaders to helm their operations — whether keeping existing staff in place or seeking new blood.
Then, they should not expect to make much money. In fact, calling newspapers, as Sussman has, an “important community resource” — not a business — would probably be a good idea. ewspapers are no longer a license to print money, but they can make a modest profit. And much of the past financial pressure on newspapers was debt, of which all these papers are now free.
Next, they need to make the product better. Sussman has invested in editorial content, and it’s paying off. Witness major pieces by Colin Woodard, for example, shifting the political conversation around government hiring lobbyists to be regulators.
Sussman is also investing in internal systems improvements, smoothing the editorial process and allowing actual financial tracking in near-real-time. But those should only be in service to improving the finished product, which is what the general public sees.
Which leads to the final suggestion: The new owners must remember they still answer to the public. Amazon.com depends on having a good reputation among millions of customers — and the same is true of the Sox. With newspapers, the ownership still answers to the audience, and depends on its trust and support. These billionaires got rich by collecting other people’s money; they should not forget transparency and accountability, especially as employers of the key enforcers of those principles.