The newest status symbol? A newspaper

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, bought The Washington Post. Via Flickr user Mathieu Thouvenin.

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, bought The Washington Post. Via Flickr user Mathieu Thouvenin.

Owning a news outlet is the new side project for the wealthy — a status symbol of sorts.

That’s what can be gleaned from the headlines in recent months. Businessman Warren Buffett has a company that buys newspapers across the country. Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos purchased The Washington Post in October for $250 million (chump change for someone with a net worth 96 times that amount). And eBay founder Pierre Omidyar announced last week that he is starting a media organization covering news for “mainstream readers,” whatever that means.

It seems that rich businessmen, especially ones who make their money in tech, want news outlets to cherish and to hold. The question is why.

The refrain that logically pops up here is: “Newspapers are dying.” Ah, yes, I never tire of hearing that. People want to know why giant investors would want to own a newspaper when it will just go out of business.

I can’t speak for Buffett or Bezos or Omidyar, but I can say that though newspapers aren’t doing well, that doesn’t mean journalism isn’t doing well. Websites such as the The Huffington Post and Mashable prove that news without paper is popular and profitable. Bezos probably wants to make sure The Post is part of that.

“Bezos, the next owner of The Washington Post, says he doesn’t have all the answers for what’s ailing the newspaper industry or for the financially challenged news organization he is preparing to buy,” The Washington Post wrote in September. “But he says he’s eager to start asking questions and conducting experiments in the quest for a new ‘golden era’ at The Post.”

But we still must wonder why people like Bezos are interested in the news business. Companies are not known for their love of reporters.

Big-time businessmen like Buffett and Bezos may just want a new horizon to conquer. They have already bested the business world, so now they want to figure out the answer to a problem that seems unanswerable: How do you make journalism (and newspapers) profitable?

It’s a way to flex their mental muscles (and their ego), trying new ways to make money off news. They want to surmount a problem that has vexed us journalists for a long time. These businessmen want to win.

They will probably meet with varying levels of success. Omidyar’s announcement on his blog was vague at best, uninformed at the worst.

“Right now, I’m in the very early stages of creating a new mass media organization,” he wrote. “I don’t yet know how or when it will be rolled out, or what it will look like.”

But with the taste of initial skepticism still in my mouth, I give these business titans my blessing, not that they need it. Their ultimate goal is to turn a profit, and no matter how much journalists say we’re not doing this for the money, it’s also nice to work for a profitable company and have (liquid) bread on the table.

For once, these businessmen and journalists are working toward the same goal.

More power to you, Bezos.

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