Bored Billionaire Syndrome

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From an anonymous reader on what this person calls the “bored billionaire” syndrome. I think this is very on the mark for what the billionaire savior wants to accomplish when they rescue a struggling publication and why they often get tetchy pretty quickly.

I wanted to add to your post about the situation at the Washington Post. If I worked there, the thing I would be most worried right now is that Bezos has entered a very familiar and dangerous phase of his ownership for the newsroom. I call it the “bored billionaire” stage and, in my case, it comes from lived experience.

New billionaires don’t buy money-losing publications as charities whose losses they are willing to underwrite because they believe those publications ought to keep existing. (Old billionaires did: the Fleishmans and then the Newhouses with The New Yorker, the Hedermans and the New York Review, Marty Peretz — via his wife’s Singer inheritance — and The New Republic, etc.) 

The billionaires who have bought into journalism more recently (think: Bezos, Powell, Omidiyar, Soon-Shiong, Hughes) have been primarily motivated by being “the one” to figure out a new business model for journalism (often because this is what they did in another field and they think they can repeat the feat). 

This makes all of their ownerships fairly precarious for their newsrooms, because no matter how many prizes they win or how big their audience gets, it’s not what the owner is after: they want to be able to brag that they finally cracked the case and claim the heroic legacy as the visionary who “saved journalism.” 

This usually doesn’t work out, and has typically followed a familiar pattern of failure: 

Phase 1 —  Happy Days! The publication leadership tells the new owner that their biggest problem has been the tight-fistedness of the prior owner, and if they just had the money to invest in (a product team; new and different kind of journalists, etc) they would be commercially successful. This sounds good to the billionaire because they have a lot of money. Problem solved!

Phase 2 — Well, that didn’t work. Now the publication has spent a whole lot of money, is losing just as much as it used to, or maybe even more. Often this is when the big rounds of layoffs come, unwinding some of the investments in Phase 1. Sometimes the billionaire is willing to try another strategy, shake things up, bring in new leadership, try something else, which also doesn’t work. Sometimes they skip straight to the next phase.

Phase 3 — Bored Billionaire. After spending a lot of money, their ego bruised after making enemies with the newsroom (who feels betrayed by all the turmoil and layoffs after mistakenly believing their billionaire had signed up to underwrite losses indefinitely) and being vilified in the press as someone who doesn’t know anything about journalism, they start to look for the exits. Often this means bringing in a new team for one last cockamamie hail-mary pass, which most certainly won’t work. But it’s their last idea.

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