Could tech billionaires save the newspaper industry?

Jeff Bezos has bought the ‘Washington Post’, but how might his peers be courted?


The Washington Post’s $250 million (€187 million) price tag may have represented less than 1 per cent of new owner Jeff Bezos’s net worth, but that won’t have stopped newspaper executives turning their attention to the hitherto underexplored “tech billionaire” solution to their financial predicaments.

Assuming – and it’s a big assumption – that a gaggle of Silicon Valley moguls will now “do a Bezos” in the wake of the Amazon founder’s purchase of the Post, how should “old media” companies best persuade this demographic to throw loose change in their direction?

First of all, it’s probably best to put any residual bitterness about the internet “killing” newspapers to bed before getting into bed with investors who have become rich beyond all human need by launching the right technology platform at the right time. Once upon a time, newspaper publishers who owned printing presses grew fat with riches in much the same fashion. Secondly, flattery will get you everywhere in business. It is vital both to exploit and respect the interests of the typical tech billionaire. These are almost always described as “eclectic”.

Bezos, for instance, owns a space tourism company called Blue Origin. In 2011, a Blue Origin prototype rocket self-destructed during a test flight. His promised “experimentation” at the Post will hopefully prove a little smoother.

PayPal entrepreneur Elon Musk is worth a more modest $2.7 billion, but like the infinitely richer Amazon man, he’s keen on the stars, having founded rocket- maker SpaceX. Said to have been the inspiration for Tony Stark in the Iron Man movies, Musk is a risk-taker and a problem-solver, so picking up a newspaper and adapting its business model to the digital era shouldn’t be too much of a problem for him. Sadly, Musk’s current focus is on an arguably more difficult transition – that of humans from Earth to Mars.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin is less of a would-be intergalactic explorer and more of a foodie. Brin’s latest splurge is on the “test-tube burger”, a $300,000 lab-grown patty that was pan-fried in London on Monday. Brin didn’t taste the “cultured beef” himself, but might he bite at a flagship newspaper title?

Probably not. Google has only dabbled in content and that was through YouTube. If it decides to snap up media groups for the cost of a packet of test-tube burgers, US cable television networks seem like a much more attractive fit. Meanwhile, in a video explaining why slabs of synthetic meat are his latest thing, Brin wears his Google Glass headset, thereby reminding media groups that the dawn of virtual reality is their next great headache.

With a net worth of $67 billion, Bill Gates remains the richest tech billionaire and is also “the world’s most generous person”, according to Forbes, having given away $28 billion to worthy causes. Do newspaper groups count? Journalists may be more willing than newspaper proprietors to argue that they do.

A close cousin of the “philanthropy” card is the “community” one. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is the kind of billionaire who remembers where he came from, having invested in sports teams based in his home state of Washington. On this basis, Irish newspapers could do worse than play the long game of being strategically nice to 20-something millionaires the Collison brothers.

With his pasty awkwardness and casual attire, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (net worth $13.3 billion) would fit right in in any newsroom, but he hasn’t shown a smidgeon of interest in anything as 20th century as a newspaper, concentrating on whipping Facebook’s mobile advertising revenues into shape and identifying new social media platforms to embrace into the Menlo Park fold.

A more likely prospect for newspaper groups is Twitter, and not just because billionaire co-founder Jack Dorsey once talked to Rupert Murdoch on it. Twitter is a natural platform for news, a fact that it has belatedly realised by setting up @TwitterForNews, an account that spotlights “best practices and innovative uses of Twitter by journalists and newsrooms”. Maybe one day it will invest in news production, not just distribution.

But how would a cash-strapped newspaper executive broker a deal with Dorsey? Well, apart from making the case for an imminent explosion in digital revenues, it might help to remember that Dorsey’s interests are, according to Forbes, “eclectic” – that word again. This appears to mean he likes punk. He’s also a professional masseur, which would give him unparalleled powers to ease newsroom tension.

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