The news that Marc Benioff, the founder and co-CEO of Salesforce.com, and his wife Lynne are buying Time magazine is paradoxical. On one hand, the internet revolution, of which Salesforce is a part, has badly mauled the media. Yet on the other hand, tech tycoons seem increasingly willing to invest heavily to revive at least some media titles.
We all know about the wipeout in journalism over the past couple of decades. And while some conservatives might cheer the defunding of the mostly liberal mainstream media, others on the Right, including here at TAC, have pointed to the greater danger of devitalizing our civic discourse.
So perhaps in these new purchases—which also include Amazon’s Jeff Bezos buying The Washington Post and Apple’s Laurene Powell Jobs buying The Atlantic—we can see a sort of cosmic equalization. That is, it’s a kind of media homeostasis in which the downward trend is bent upward, as the public’s interest in journalism is met in a new way. In his 1841 essay “Compensation,” Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that things have a way of evening out. As he put it, “Dualism underlies the nature and condition of man. …Every sweet hath its sour; every evil its good.”
Or perhaps we’re simply seeing the teched-up revival of a familiar archetype: the Press Lord. These days, journalistic properties might be dog investments, but these days, too, some Americans are so rich that they don’t care—they can afford a whole media kennel.
Or, to put it another way, if you’re rich enough to be at the pinnacle of the Maslowian pyramid, owning media titles, even money losers, might be an excellent form of self-actualization.
Moreover, if a plutocrat has political ambitions, then media muscle starts to look less like an ego ornament and more like an actual investment. The most famous such figure in U.S. history is William Randolph Hearst, who used his newspapers as a platform to get himself elected to Congress, and further sought, albeit unsuccessfully, the mayorship of New York City and the governorship of New York State. Why, he even had presidential aspirations, and was a would-be White House kingmaker until the end of his life.
Today, another New Yorker, Michael Bloomberg, seems to have some of those same ambitions. The financial data company he founded has given him a net worth estimated at $52.9 billion. Yet he clearly yearns for more than just money: he was mayor of New York City for 12 years and has given billions to various causes, including gun control and fighting climate change. And, oh yes, he’s thinking once again of running for president, this time as a Democrat.
In the meantime, he has turned the once-utilitarian Bloomberg terminal into a media jukebox, providing news on myriad subjects far from Wall Street. Not long ago, he bought a well-known but faded title Businessweek—and voila! It’s now Bloomberg Businessweek. And of course, everyone knows that if The New York Times were ever up for sale, Bloomberg would buy it, at virtually any markup, in a New York minute.
For his part, Donald Trump—the man liberals love to hate—is also aiding, inadvertently, the journalistic uptick. On September 17, The Washington Post headlined a story, “A Trump effect at journalism schools? Colleges see a surge in admissions.” As the article detailed, enrollment in many journalism schools—including at Northwestern, Syracuse, the University of Maryland, and Arizona State—is up sharply. Needless to say, many of these aspiring Woodwards are motivated by their desire to join the anti-Trump #Resistance. Also needless to say, many foundations have been eager to help, eagerly opening their checkbooks to mostly liberal programs and professors.
Now of course, not every journalism student goes on to graduate, and not all of them will find jobs. After all, the number of billionaires eager to burn through at least some of their fortune on the media is limited, and Trump the motivating tool won’t be around forever.
However, it’s also true that there is a natural instinct for news—that’s the media homeostasis. People want to know what’s going on, including in their immediate environment. And so if local radio, for example, has been hollowed out, well, there’s always NPR, eager to accept donations from non-billionaires—and even non-millionaires.
Moreover, many others, too, are getting into the game of producing news. It’s been estimated, for instance, that public relations professionals outnumber journalists by a six-to-one ratio. And while nobody should mistake a flack for a journalist, PR vehicles have had a way of morphing over time into news operations. Indeed, many, if not most, august media institutions had their origins in the simple desire to sell advertising.
In addition, governments, corporations, trade associations, and activist groups have built increasingly active media presences, refracting the news through the prisms of their isms. For Second Amendment fans, for instance, what better place to get news about guns—and many other topics—than from NRA-TV? Indeed, given the ubiquity of cellphone cameras, just about anyone can hope to be a journalist, even if only for the proverbial 15 minutes.
It’s also true that sometimes supply creates its own demand. That is, if there are enough clever reportorial wannabes running around, they’ll find new ways to make journalism pay. Once again, with an Emersonian circularity, the same digital forces that destroyed much of the media are helping to build it back up, as apps aplenty help finance the next crop of crusaders.
Of course, looming over all of journalism is Facebook, along with the other tech giants, including Google and Twitter. These social media companies, of course, have swallowed up most of the revenue that once went to old-line media.
Yet today, for all their power and profitability, the techsters find themselves in a nasty political crossfire. Liberals believe that Silicon Valley allowed Hillary Clinton to be hurt in the 2016 election, and conservatives believe the tech giants are actively out to hurt them in 2018.
The accusers on both sides could be substantially correct, and that’s why it seems inevitable that significant regulation at the federal level is coming. And if that regulation comes in the form of “rules of the road”—that is, legal requirements for political fairness, including perhaps transparency over their fabled algorithms—then the tech companies will be on their way to something akin to utility status. To be sure, they’ll still be plenty rich and powerful; they’ll just have to behave themselves better in the eyes of the nation.
Like it or not, someday Facebook could start to resemble the old broadcast networks, under the watchful eye of the Federal Communications Commission, or maybe even a bit like the old Ma Bell. (Emerson would surely savor that sort of eternal return.)
In such a regulated environment, the monetary wellsprings of journalism will be replenished. Why? Because in a pluralistic society in which predatory and near-monopolistic power has been restrained, all the familiar players, including the new press lords, will continue to see the value of having their voices heard.
And so, as journalists and the journalism biz regain their balance after the tech onslaught of the past two decades, they’ll find a way to get their mojo back. In fact, as we are seeing, they’re already finding it.
This is, after all, the Information Age.
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.