Why billionaire ownership is good for media

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At a time when the media industry is on a steep decline, investments from ‘benevolent billionaires’ is a breath of fresh air.

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Ten years ago, when American billionaire and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post from the Graham family, it signaled a new era for media ownership under billionaires who promise to be media’s saving grace.

In the subsequent years, we have seen more billionaires investing in the media, including Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs who acquired a majority stake at The Atlantic.

We also saw investments from Marc Benioff who bought Time Magazine in 2018 and of course Michael Bloomberg who owns Bloomberg News and Businessweek.

At a time when the media industry is on a steep decline, investments from these ‘benevolent billionaires’ seemed like a welcome idea and a breath of fresh air.

Flush with cash and teeming with great ideas that promised to take full advantage of ‘the gifts of the Internet’ — to quote Bezos’ speech when he bought Washington Post — it appeared as though this was exactly what the media needed at the time.

The idea of benevolent billionaires investing in the media is not a strange occurrence in Africa and this country.

Without mentioning names, our local media industry is replete with investments from wealthy individuals who invest in the media for varied reasons including wielding political influence.

There is of course nothing wrong with a benevolent billionaire investing in the media industry, especially what we term as ‘mainstream media’.

When Bezos bought the Washington Post a decade ago, he promised to preserve their editorial independence and in staying true to his word, he sort of faded into the background shortly after the buzz had died down.

Now, ten years later, the New York Times reported that Bezos will be playing a ‘more active’ role in the Washington Post.

Without giving much detail, American press reported that Bezos met with some staff in January in a bid to boost staff morale and also make some management changes. Reports reveal renewed ‘sense of hope’ which hopefully will restore morale at the Washington Post.

The biggest conundrum in cases where billionaires invest their money in the media, besides their return on investment, is usually their influence – or interference – with the editorial independence of the media outlet.

While some argue that billionaire ownership of the media in such difficult times is a welcome and much-needed relief, others remain skeptical especially about the idea of having an oligopoly in the media industry.

However way you look at it, the media right now needs all the support it can get. This is why I am inclined to agree with those think that billionaire ownership is a good thing for the media, especially at such a time as this when the media industry is in dire straits.

There is however a caveat, we are not just talking about any billionaire, but a good-spirited individual who is keen to not only experiment with innovation and ‘the gifts of the Internet’, but one who is brave enough to preserve the editorial independence of the media organisation, and when need be, supports the media to hold the powers that be to account.

- Dr Chege is a media and technology researcher