OCTOBER 16

SLACK CHAT: THE UNPREDICTABLE POWER OF TECH CEOS IN TODAY’S MEDIA

by    |  SLACK CHATS

Jacqueline (Jacqueline Wasem, account manager): In recent years, billionaire CEOs like Amazon's Jeff Bezos and Salesforce's Marc Benioff have scooped up storied media brands including The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic and Time Magazine. Others, like PayPal founder Peter Thiel, have used their wealth to put popular media outlets out of business. Mark Zuckerberg, meanwhile, has been forced to sheepishly defend Facebook's vast influence over U.S. public opinion before Congress. 

How should we feel about this power shift away from the old guard New York and D.C. media toward tech titans on the West Coast? What are the implications for U.S. media and the public?

Scott (Scott Baradell, president): I think, given the alternatives, tech CEOs buying up traditional media companies is a positive trend. The reason is that media companies haven't done very well as public companies; the growth is never sufficient to satisfy Wall Street. It just ends up in cost-cutting bloodbaths and empty newsrooms.

Jarrett (Jarrett Rush, director of content marketing): Traditionally, media companies were owned by one family or one group. Private ownership can work better than public ownership. These tech giants are among the relatively small number of people who can actually afford to buy them. And I'd have to imagine that they feel like a stable investment compared to another tech startup. 

Scott:  If these tech leaders want to burnish their own images (or simply do good) by propping up and building up traditional media brands, more power to them. Margaret Sullivan, Washington Post media columnist, was recently interviewed on If Then, Slate’s technology podcast. She put it this way: "One of the really difficult and bad developments in journalism in recent years is that hedge funds have bought up ... newspapers ... and taken their newsroom numbers down to the point where they really can’t cover their communities. I think with the billionaires we’re talking about, they seem to be invested in trying to keep the quality of the product that they’ve just bought."

Jacqueline: What challenges and opportunities will journalists and publications see in this new era?

Jarrett: Journalists have always had sacred cows they had to be careful not to gore. They'll still have those. But with such high-profile owners, it may be more obvious now when they are sidestepping something they are uncomfortable writing about.

Colton (Colton Hightower, assistant account executive): Also, these outlets are already encountering increased bias claims.

Scott: That's right—as with Jeff Bezos and the criticism leveled at him by President Trump. The more you can connect the outlet to the owner, the harder it is for a media entity to present itself as dispassionate or unbiased.

Katie (Katie Long, vice president): This new visibility of billionaires isn't just limited to the media industry, either. Not to derail the topic, but we're seeing this in politics, too.

Scott: There's Trump, of course. And the media billionaire turned billionaire politician: Michael Bloomberg.

Jacqueline: Let's take a closer look at a few of these new media owners: Jeff Bezos (Washington Post), Marc Benioff (Time), Patrick Soon-Shiong (LA Times) and Laurene Powell Jobs (The Atlantic).  A century ago, you had media barons like Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, but this was their primary occupation; they had a passion for the media business. Pulitzer was a journalist first. What about this group of owners? What is driving them? 

Katie: I think it's a little bit of nostalgia and the idea that they can fix the economic problem others have failed to solve.

Scott: A billionaire has definitely fixed The Washington Post. Not sure if it's Bezos or Trump, though.

Liz: Yes, I wonder if it's for the same reason some tech leaders have tip-toed into politics—trying to apply what they've learned in business to fix our struggling institutions.

Katie: That's an interesting point. Many of these very visible CEOs have a "save the world" vision and reputation. Bill and Melinda Gates come to mind. And Mark Zuckerberg has committed to give away most of his money.

Liz: I think the ideal model would be a wealthy CEO seeing this as a philanthropic effort, and not trying to create financial ROI.

Jacqueline: Look at Gothamist and its sister publications being shut down by billionaire Joe Ricketts after workers voted to unionize. That did not end well.

Scott: As some billionaires giveth, others taketh away. To me, what Peter Thiel did to destroy Gawker is one of the most chilling media stories in recent years. He fed millions of dollars into lawsuits calculated to destroy a successful media outlet, simply because he didn't like how they wrote about him. That's scary stuff.

Jacqueline: If you look at Vanity Fair's New Establishment list that came out recently, seven of the top 10 on the list are media and tech folks like Bezos, Zuckerberg and Netflix's Reed Hastings.

Katie: All recognizable names—that's not a coincidence. This is a reflection of how millennials and Gen Zers view organizations. They want to know what companies stand for and they want to see the face—the CEO. The expectation is that the CEOs thoughts and ideas are up for public consumption and scrutiny.

Colton: I find it interesting that this happens with companies like Facebook that have a fresh “new tech” feel and happens significantly less with older companies.

Scott: Good point. Randall Stephenson is in Vanity Fair's top 10 and nobody knows who he is—and he's in Dallas. The CEO of AT&T. Powerful, but not as sexy as Netflix.

Liz: I think what we're seeing right now is a power shift in business, but not so much a power shift in the media. It's just a different type of company now trying to influence media.

Jacqueline: What about the issue Scott brought up before: Peter Thiel's successful campaign to shutter Gawker? How do journalists and the public deal with the fact that wealthy executives can use their funds to act on whatever positive or negative motives they have?

Liz: Have a good lawyer on speed dial? :wink:

Scott: If I can step back on this topic a bit, the larger issue is the increasingly dominant role that billionaires are playing in the daily lives of Americans. It's truer than at any time in our history, even the Gilded Age of the late 19th century.

Liz: I think we have to hope that there will be enough principled "little guys" willing to stand up to the Goliaths of our day.

Colton: Wait—aren't journalists supposed to be the ones who stand up to the Goliaths?

Scott: Boom. And this chat has a winner...

Jacqueline: Any final words of advice to the new kings of the media?

Jarrett: In any ownership structure, journalism works best when it's left alone. Most journalists just want to find and report the truth. Don't be afraid to let them find it, even if it makes life temporarily uncomfortable for you or your friends. By investing in the media, you've bought yourself a lot of power. Respect what it can do.

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