Hard News by Russell Brown


A handful of battling billionaires

Any discussion about the modern plight of newspapers will, before long, reach the proposition that many great papers would be better off without their greedy, stupid proprietors. Imagine, I like to say in such discussions, how the Los Angeles Times could be if David Geffen reached into his $6 billion wallet and saved it from those idiots at the Tribune Company.

Well, that thing sort of just happened, but it wasn't David Geffen, it was Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and instead of rescuing one of the despoiled mastheads, he bought one of the good ones.

The Graham family, perhaps the archetypal newspaper dynasty, has sold the Washington Post to Bezos for $250 million. Bezos, in his letter to Post employees, hits the right notes. This could have been a lot worse.

Like the Grahams, Bezos seems set to own the paper not just as a business, but as an exercise in social good. Although he disavows any day-to-day management role, the mere fact of his ownership means the paper has a better chance of confronting a changing environment than it would as a publicly-held company.

The remarkable thing, really, is how cheap the Post was to buy. One of the great mastheads, plus a hell of a lot more, for $250 million (what would the New Zealand Herald be worth?). There are plenty of people in America with that kind of cash -- or access to finance -- and not all of them have Bezos' sense of civics. The Koch brothers, who laid a good deal of the astroturf for the Tea Party, are currently interested in buying newspapers across the US, including the LA Times and the Chicago Tribune. They're currently seen as frontrunners for the Times, a prospect that drew this extraordinary quote from US Federal Communications Commissxion chair Reed Hundt:

"I'd rather have Murdoch than the Kochs own The Times, if it came down to that choice," he said. The Koch brothers, he charged, "use money and media to misinform, misdirect and make miserable all of us."

It's not that the Kochs are politically conservative, it's their contempt for anything like editorial principles. There has been talk of a crowdfunded buyback of the Times, but I'll believe that when I see it. The Tribune Company's largest shareholder, Oaktree Capital Management, which lately specialises in acquiring the debts of numbskull private capital firms (they're the big player in the Mediaworks receievership here), isn't likely to be overly sentimental about it.

Perhaps the best hope of Times and Tribune readers will be if Geffen or someone like him does open a wallet and outbid the Koch brothers. It's an odd situation: the age in which we're heralding the democratisation of publishing comes down to a handful of battling billionaires. But that seems to be where we're at.

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