Bezos and O’Brien: a tale of two media moguls

From ‘genetic optimism’ to ‘cows on the line’, how do the newspaper-owning billionaires compare?


Like unhappy families, no two media moguls are alike. Rupert Murdoch, Gina Rinehart, Charles Foster Kane. all completely different. At least one of them is a fictional character, for a start. Oprah Winfrey, the Lebedevs, the Barclays, the surviving Hearsts: the one thing these people have in common is their immense wealth.

But just how does Ireland’s foremost media mogul, Denis O’Brien, measure up against the man everyone is talking about on the other side of the Atlantic, Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos? For no particularly good reason, let’s find out.

Assets: Bezos (50) is the founder and man in control of ecommerce supergiant Amazon. He’s new to the traditional media game, however, having snapped up the Washington Post for $250 million of his own money in August 2013. He’s the sole owner, meaning he has full control of the newspaper.

Digicel chairman and founder O’Brien (56) set up his radio group Communicorp during the 1989 dawn of commercial radio in Ireland. Much to the discomfort of the O’Reilly family, he began buying up shares in Independent News & Media (INM) in 2006. He now owns 29.88 per cent of the news group but, according to the broadcasting regulator, O’Brien does not control it. Other opinions are available.

Entry into newspapers: Don Graham, then-chairman of the Washington Post, came to Bezos looking to hand over the paper to someone with deep pockets who could afford to run it as a journalistic enterprise. He was a reluctant proprietor at first, telling Graham he “didn’t know anything about the news business” and didn’t consider himself a “logical buyer”.

It didn’t play out quite like that at INM.

Net wealth: Bezos is worth about $30 billion, while O’Brien has an estimated wealth of $5 billion.

Mutual appreciation: Sir Anthony O’Reilly did a stint on the Washington Post board during the Graham family era, but Bezos’s thoughts on present-day INM, if he has any, are unrecorded.

However, INM chairman Leslie Buckley, a long-term business associate of O’Brien’s, recently cited the Washington Post as one of two newspapers (the other being the Financial Times) that he admired. Bezos hasn’t bought the paper for nothing, he suggested in June: “It is one of those I would be watching very closely to see what kind of changes he’ll be making.”

Changes: under Bezos the Post has hired more than 100 people this year, while it is currently engaged in something called “Project Rainbow” that will see the Post’s app pre-installed on the latest iteration of the Amazon Kindle Fire device.

INM, too, has been in hiring mode, advertising 40 jobs in its digital division over the summer, putting the call out for “digital risk-takers” to help it grow and compete on a global scale, no less. But, under the watchful eye of its bankers, it has also trained its focus on cutting costs over the past two years, taking millions out of its operating costs via less friendly- sounding initiatives “Project Resolute” and “Project Quantum”.

Employee pensions: the news has not been good in either case.

Paywall issues: the Post has in place a porous paywall, aka a metered, leaky or soft paywall – the kind that most readers are able to ignore. Bezos himself is among those keener on the revenue potential of apps.

After announcing plans to introduce a web paywall, INM had a change of heart last year, declaring that charging for online content was “not off the agenda” but not really on it either.

Keeping up with the market: “All businesses need to be young forever,” Bezos told editors and reporters at the Post when he popped in last autumn. “If your customer base ages with you, you’re Woolworth’s.”

Investing in digital is “where the really big bet is”, O’Brien told the Sunday Business Post in an interview last month. “Look at kids today. Everything is so fragmented. Bits of data from everywhere.”

Past-present-future: “In Ireland there might eventually be only one or two newspapers,” O’Brien continued. “The problem now is, there are a lot of management teams in media who don’t see any way of co-operating, and to be honest, they are the cows on the line.”

Bezos, meanwhile, told Post staff that his “genetic optimism”, combined with the talent within the company, led him to believe it would be successful again. But news groups can’t dine out on hallowed history, he cautioned: “The death knell for any enterprise is to glorify the past no matter how good it was.”

No bovine metaphors have been attributed to him to date.