On Wednesday December 19, Northeastern School of Journalism Associate Professor Dan Kennedy gave a talk at the Wayland Public Library discussing his latest book, Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry are Remaking Newspapers for the 21st Century.
In the book, Kennedy examines the question of whether individual ownership of major newspapers can revitalize what many believe to be a dying industry. This used to be the case in the golden age of print, when Hearst and Pulitzer were titans of the trade.
Unlike their predecessors, these new media moguls, Bezos and Henry, are expanding into new territory, having forged successful empires in other industries. In 2013, John Henry and Jeff Bezos purchased The Boston Globe and The Washington Post respectively, within days of each other. Henry was the billionaire owner of the Boston Red Sox while Bezos sailed to prosperity on Amazon.
When questioned about their motivations in purchasing newspapers, Kennedy speculated it was a mix of ego and civic mindedness. Newspapers, and a functioning press in general, are key to a democracy. Someone who wanted to keep a failing newspaper afloat, and had the money to do so, could easily think “the only thing this business is lacking is me,” he explained. But does this mean a renaissance for a flagging industry?
In his talk on Wednesday, Kennedy gave a cautious “yes.” While a fresh perspective and much needed funds will ensure these iconic publications do not go under, print journalism may never regain its former glory and the digital age is here to stay.
Three tycoons purchased three different papers, each with a different level of success. “You need three to make a trend,” Kennedy explained. All three came along when “we were realizing that the idea of giving news away online for free wasn’t going to work.” Ad revenue through digital was simply not going to generate enough money to support a paper. Classified ads flourished online as expected, just not with newspapers. Instead, they all went to the free service Craigslist, taking “40 percent of revenue” with it. Remaining ads did not translate well to online formats. “No one clicks on banner ads except by accident,” Kennedy pointed out.
The first to try and save a staggering paper was Aaron Kushner, who made his money with greeting cards, and bought the Orange County Register in 2012. Kushner had big ideas that were accompanied with big spending – hiring new reporters, investing in a better print edition. Unfortunately, expanding too quickly without generating enough revenue saw him forced out in 2015. But his status as the first of the new breed of newspaper owners remains.
John Henry purchased The Globe in 2013 from the New York Times company for 70 million dollars. Compared to the 1.1 billion dollars the Times company had paid, Henry may as well have picked it up at a garage sale. Henry’s plan to revitalize the paper was a “throw it at the wall, see what sticks” method – new sections came and and went while massive infrastructure changes such as moving the printing press, regularly threw The Globe into chaos. “The Henry era was marked with good ideas and poor execution” that cost the paper greatly, said Kennedy.
The Globe published other papers such as The Boston Herald and USA Today, both of which left after distribution issues arose from moving the printing press from the historic Dorchester location to Taunton. Despite this, the Globe is apparently profitable now through the oldest method in the corporate playbook – cost-cutting. In doing so while still meeting its coverage needs, the paper has demonstrated an aptitude for deploying fewer reporters more efficiently wherever it needs.
Bezos purchased The Washington Post in 2013 from the Graham family, and enjoys the distinction of “the one unalloyed success.” Initially, the paper had struggled with a question of distribution and identity – was it a regional paper like The Globe or national like the New York Times? Bezos solved that by going national with digital distribution through the Kindle and Amazon, leaving print for D.C. area. “If you can amass a huge audience, you can convert a small percentage into paying subscribers,” Kennedy observed.
Besides the backing of one of the richest men in the world, The Post’s other asset is Marty Baron, formerly of The Globe as its head editor. In terms of content, Baron strikes a balance between quality journalism and more lightweight, “viral stories” that are solely meant to increase viewership and make people click on them (i.e. “clickbait”).
The take-away from Return of the Moguls is that print journalism is on its way out, but newspapers themselves are hanging on in a digital incarnation. Both Kushner and Henry’s troubles stemmed from their papers’ print editions. Bezos, in large part thanks to Amazon, was able to embrace digital papers from the start, relegating the physical copies to the paper’s home territory, rather than force a national print edition.
Dan Kennedy is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a nationally-renowned media commentator. He has written several books and contributes to WGBHNews.org, Nieman Lab and other publications. Kennedy is also a panelist on Beat the Press on WGBH TV.