The Best Thing That Could Happen to Old Media: Magazines Becoming the New Bling

By Sarah Lacy , written on July 9, 2012

From The News Desk

The Washington Post has a great story about Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes and why on earth someone so new media would buy The New Republic, a troubled property with a storied past that lately has been through a revolving door of owners.

It boils down to one reason: He was a fan of the magazine, and with $850 million in Facebook wealth he can afford to buy struggling businesses just because he likes them.

That's not too different from why Rupert Murdoch followed up the purchase of MySpace (then actually an impressive, Web-savvy move) by buying the old-school Wall Street Journal. It gave the tabloid kingpin prestige. It's also not too different from why Michael Bloomberg bought BusinessWeek: A mass-market, glossy magazine was one of the only things his company had failed to build.

Each of these examples share two things in common: Inherited prestige and legacy that's hard to replicate (witness the recent, weird pivot of Good after a yeoman's effort to create a new, high quality brand), and a mogul who can afford to throw money at a lousy business. Magazines and newspapers are becoming like sports teams. You don't expect to make money off of them, but to the rich, they're a status symbol. It's like the more scholarly version of a Ferrari.

Or at least let's hope in this case three makes a trend.

While it may seem insulting to relegate a storied media franchise to the status of mere "bling," this is the best thing that could happen to old media. I mean, given the general mess it's in. Beggers can't be choosers. Let's be glad someone is buying these properties, considering BusinessWeek went for a mere $5 million plus the assumption of its debt. As someone who spent years dreaming of working there and made much of her career from the halo of that brand, let me just say "ouch."

No matter what the motivation, rich vanity buyers can do two things public companies can't on their own: Absorb losses while they continue to invest in quality or, even better, make hard choices to drag these companies kicking and screaming into the digital age without the illusion of near term profits. Either would be better than where old media is now. Let's face it, a few examples like the Economist aside, most old media brands need a patron if they're going to make it with any journalistic dignity left in tact.

After all, the roots of what made many media organizations so great were rich owners, usually families, who were motivated more by mission than growing revenues by double digits every year. The Grahams built the Washington Post into a legendary force, and Don Graham continues that legacy today. McGraw Hill, led by the McGraw family, created BusinessWeek in the 1920s, just weeks before the stock market crash. It was the worst possible time to create a business publication, but the family sustained it, because that was also the most important time to invest in a good business publication. Henry Luce built the Time empire, and the Sulzbergers built the New York Times.

The list goes on and stretches through smaller cities and towns across America, where once family owned publications sold out to big chains like Gannett and Scripps Howard. Whether out of financial alignment, pride, or ego, the newspaper families of old strove to build publications with journalistic integrity. I'm sure they weren't perfect, but these are my media heroes. They made hard decisions that benefited the public good (and their own bank accounts ultimately and egos, if you want to be more cynical) more than the near term demands of shareholders.

It was only when newspapers began to be rolled up into giant, public companies that everything started to fall apart. Because with the rise of activist shareholders, publications didn't have the luxury the McGraw family did in the 1920s to take the long term view. And the Web clobbered them. Despite ten years of warning, few old media players have yet adapted to the Web, let alone mobile. Being public makes it much harder to turn on a dime as your business is under threat. As evidence, witness the decline of Knight Ridder whose flagship paper, The San Jose Mercury News, was based amid the tech revolution in Silicon Valley.

Mark Pincus' previous company Tribe was designed to help newspapers adapt. He has told me before that the biggest reason it failed was he wildly overestimated these empires' willingness and ability to change.

Indeed, don't listen to me. Listen to The New Republic's Leon Wieseltier as quoted in the Post. Hughes may have zero experience as an Editor-in-Chief, but as budgets and pages have expanded, the staff seems willing to let that slide:

"I have to tell you, it’s a spectacular relief. The pressures of the present moment in American journalism aren’t just economic; they’re intellectual, or rather anti-intellectual. I feel very confident in saying we’re not going to become quicker, fuzzier, faster. We’re reviving our old standards.”
Indeed, whenever I've visited the people I used to work with at BusinessWeek at the insanely swanky Bloomberg offices, they have no complaints. There's no getting around the reality that only a fraction kept their jobs after the deal closed. For those left, life at Bloomberg can be demanding, but most are paid well, fed even better and have something reporters at competing magazines can only dream of: Job security. It's a world different from the old BusinessWeek I worked at. I loved my time there, but its offices on Mariner's Island with the rattly dorm fridge, bad coffee and annual end-of-year layoffs were decidedly un-Bloomberg.

And as for the Journal.... OK, well, not everyone has loved life after Murdoch.

I don't mean to paint a paradise, but compare it to the average newspaper or magazine job in America.

I've mostly celebrated new media taking huge bites out of the establishment. Under public company management, many papers and magazines had become lazy, entitled, and elitist at their worst. The old media establishment needed to be pummeled for the good of journalism. But every pendulum can swing too far, and the belief that a good story wasn't counted in page views has been all but lost in a world of Retweets, Likes, and clicks.

A resurgence of deep-pocketed old media brands committed to quality would be just the kick in the pants that new media needs right now.

[Amazing image courtesy of Shutterstock.]