Billionaires Buying Papers & The Future of Photojournalism

Billionaires Buying Papers & The Future of Photojournalism

bezos

In the space of a few days, two major newspapers have been sold from their corporate entities to billionaires. On August 3, The New York Times Co agreed to sell The Boston Globe to John Henry, the owner of the Boston Red Sox, for a pittance of $70m. And on August 5, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos agreed to buy the Washington Post for $250m.

Earlier in the year, billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, investigated buying the Tribune Company, which operates the Los Angles Times and Chicago Tribune.

The investment thesis remains a bit unclear. Newspapers aren’t like professional sports teams (another billionaire must-buy), which seem to inevitably appreciate in value. In the case of the Kochs, it was speculated that they were looking to advance their conservative agendas against a mainstream media that is alleged to have a liberal bias. But for Henry and Bezos, the logic isn’t as obvious. Of course, it would be silly to assume that these billionaires have no agenda or desire to influence how they are perceived in the press. Only time will tell.

For Bezos’ part, he said in a statement:

“The Internet is transforming almost every element of the news business: shortening news cycles, eroding long-reliable revenue sources, and enabling new kinds of competition, some of which bear little or no news-gathering costs. There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy. We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment.”

His plan also involves retaining the entire 2,000 person staff – at least until he has more of a plan.

It’s patently clear that the old school model of newspaper distribution and revenue generation is broken. Printed circulation has been on the decline for well over a decade, and the classified/ad model has been in a tailspin. Consumer consumption of news has moved from a few central sources to a bevvy of websites, many with dubious journalistic standards. Aggregation sites (e.g. Huffington Post) and crowdsourced sites (e.g. reddit) have become front pages for many looking for sharp snippets of news. An optimist sees billionaires taking a civic interest in journalism. And in the case of Bezos, it’s exciting to see an entrepreneur who disrupted another industry (whether it benefits workers is another question, but I do know that I can order almonds in my underwear at 2am for next day delivery), take an interest in this one.

It isn’t unheard of for a billionaire to take an honest interest in journalism. eBay founder Pierre Omidyar created “Civil Beat,” which is dedicated to “public affairs reporting about Hawaii.” The economics of that business are unclear, but the online news site is providing longform journalism on a variety of topics that the Honolulu Star Advertiser (the hometown paper of record) cannot or will not cover.

civilbeat

But what does this all mean for photojournalism? As we saw with the Chicago Sun-Times, the photo department is often the first to get hammered when budgets need to be cut. This is even true at publications like Sports Illustrated, which historically relied on original photography as their very raison d’etre. Will these new owners see photography as anything but a commodity that can be easily culled from wire services like Getty Images, Reuters, AP, and the like? Or will they value original photography and re-establish a strong visual heritage?

I am skeptical.

When I look at publications that are known for incredible photography (e.g. The New York Times Magazine), I cannot help but think that that phenomena is the result of a bull-headed advocate (i.e. Kathy Ryan) rather than a top-down directive. And I suspect if you asked the readership what they like so much about the Magazine, photography wouldn’t rank near the top 5. It isn’t that photography isn’t appreciated, but it seems more common to associate with particular columns (e.g. “Lives”) or a specific writer (e.g. Chuck Klosterman). At publications known for photography, good photography is expected. It is not, I suspect, something that the public would fight for.

So it’s hard to imagine that a disruption of the existing businesses would prioritize photography as a way to upend revenue and profits. Not even two Pulitzers for Feature Photography could save the staff at the Chicago Sun-Times!

Even nouveau photographic treatments on the web, like The Boston Globe’s popular “The Big Picture,” predominantly use wire photos. Assuming Bezos uses Internet metrics (e.g. bounce rate, time on site, referrals, etc) as a basis for his “experimentation,” it’s still hard to believe that original photography will play a big part of that equation. No one will run an A/B test on original vs. wire photography. It’s too subtle a distinction.

This is a bit ironic given that the best Boston Bombing photos came from the Globe’s John Tlumacki. But had he not been there, news outlets from around the world would have run something from AP and we would have been none the wiser.

newrepublic

The redesigned New Republic website puts a 1200px image front and center.

Still, I hold some hope for the simple reason that sites like Facebook and Google+ have created increasily photo-centric designs. Huge “cover photos” have become the norm, photos and video “pop” from our newsfeeds, and consumers check apps like Instagram/Vine/Snapchat religiously. Facebook centimillionaire Chris Hughes purchased the New Republic last year, and hired the first creative director in the publication’s 100 year history who designed a homepage that now features a 1200px image (ok, it’s a wire image). Granted, that business hasn’t turned a profit yet, but at least it’s an honest start.

We are (increasingly sophisticated) visual consumers and the main problem with the traditional news media is that they simply haven’t figured out how to play the way the new kids do. But these storied newspapers now have a billion ways to find out.

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There are 14 comments for this article
  1. Pingback: Billionaires Buying Papers and the Future of Photojournalism
  2. Anthony at 11:37 am

    Stick to photography and avoid politics.

    At the very least, do your homework. Most major media outlets including newspapers, tv networks, book publishers (even children’s), and billboard companies are ALL owned by the same handful of mega-corporations. And those corps are ALL owned by heavy contributors to the Democrat party, except for one (Fox).

    This information, including political contributors, is all readily available. Very disappointed in this article. Has nothing to do with photojournalism.

    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 12:44 pm

      Don’t let your own political bias distort your understanding of the article, which had nothing to do with politics. Bezos is known to support republican and democrat candidates in nearly equal numbers. Henry has remained largely apolitical (although he has supported Kerry in the past). But this facts are secondary to the trend of billionaires entering the news media.

  3. Jerry at 3:03 pm

    Not so fast, Allen. I too was discouraged to say the least, about your own bias injected into your article. Don’t do it. Just don’t. And although your piece is much more opinion than news, like Anthony says, stay out of politics.

    If you can’t see it and your editor is also biased and can’t see it. ask a friend who does not share your political bent. If they have a modicum of intelligence, they’ll see it.

    If you really want to talk about the influence of political ideology on photojournalism via media purchases, then do it. Openly. But don’t use your articles to propagandize and then excuse your efforts with accusations of the readers’ bias for not understanding your piece.

    As a writer, if this “misunderstanding” is obvious to your readers, you have failed in your efforts to communicate your story. But you’re young. Hopefully you’ll learn.

  4. Steve Dreiseszun at 11:06 pm

    Anthony and Jerry –

    Your reading political motives into Allen’s post is puzzling. I don’t see it.

    Just because the Koch’s are mentioned doesn’t make it a hit piece tinged with political overtones. That’s just a reported fact.

    My reading was that the tea leaves in this trend (billionaires shopping spree) make it too murky to discern the motives. Even if the papers are “saved,” will that act save quality photojournalism done by LOCAL photographers?

    The jury is out on the future of newspapers in any form, news gathering in general, photography and its role in contributing to an informed society, as well as the distribution and consumption of all this content.

    I think Allen and PhotoShelter do a great job in adding to the dialog of photography and its place in the world today. We don’t live in a vacuum. The real world has many competing interests that affect photographers, even politics.

    Disagree? Great! However, dismissiveness and condescension are weak.

  5. Michael Fischer at 11:12 pm

    It’s a funny thing about quality; regardless of whether it’s a interior of someone’s house, the way a new car door slams or the image on a website or in a newspaper, people are attracted to it. They may or may not verbalize it, but they will be attracted to it – it’s just human nature.

    While it’s impossible to predict whether tomorrow’s news will be delivered with video over the internet, or with a strong image that tells the story; you can be certain of the following – whatever delivery system gets used, the one that consistently delivers compelling strong images will do better than the one that doesn’t.

    How can I prove it? It’s really simple: We’ve been telling stories with images since men
    lived in caves. Mankind has changed a lot in some ways since the beginning. In other ways, not so much.

    As for Allen promoting a particular bent politically; I’ve managed a lot of local campaigns in my lifetime; I speak spin. And if he did it, it was so subtle, it had no impact.
    -M

  6. Anthony Hereld at 2:09 pm

    Steve Dreiseszun:

    “In the case of the Kochs, it was speculated that they were looking to advance their conservative agendas against a mainstream media that is alleged to have a liberal bias. But for Henry and Bezos, the logic isn’t as obvious. Of course, it would be silly to assume that these billionaires have no agenda or desire to influence how they are perceived in the press. Only time will tell.”

    There it is, plain as day. The author of this post is college educated, so he’s only partially to blame for his social and political op-eds. He merely believes what he has been taught without having experienced much of the real world. Read any number of his articles, and what’s wrong with the education system rears its ugly head in short order.

    But I didn’t comment to start some political diatribe, so I’ll just leave it at this:

    @ the author: You clearly have some concern for photography’s role in the media, as evidenced by your articles. Passion is a good thing. In the future though, in order to gain and hold credibility over your audience, practice what you preach. Focus on true journalism and report the facts. THAT is your job as a reporter. Question the political motives of others while clearly lacing your articles with your own leanings is hypocritical and self-defeating to your cause.

    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 2:21 pm

      I never considered myself as a “reporter” but as an op/ed writer. The style of all my articles should make this blatantly clear.

      As far as facts are concerned, for independently wealthly billionaries, the Koch’s have spent the most on Super PACs to advance conservative causes than any other billionaire. This isn’t a judgement or indictment. It’s simply a statement of fact. As I reported in the article, Bezos has spent equally on democratic and republican issues, as is fitting with his more libertarian bent.

      There was much speculation over the reasons the Koch’s wanted to purchase the Tribune Company, and many of the admittedly liberal leaning writers theorized that they wished to assert their positions more vehemently. As @ak mentioned, the world’s richest woman (and presumed to be on her way to becoming the world’s richest person) Gina Rinehart did so in Australia to presumably stop negative coverage of her business practices.

      Ad hominem attacks on my education and my “youth” are a distraction from the thesis of the article, and undermine cogent discussion about how independent, wealthy ownership of newspapers will affect the future of photojournalism.

  7. Anthony Hereld at 3:49 pm

    There was no attack on your education or youth. Just another statement of fact. But perhaps liberal bias in our education system, particularly in journalism, is a topic for another day.

    You presented the facts about Koch and Bezos. That’s not the issue here. It’s was you pushing your own agenda forward with the “alleged liberal media bias” jab, followed by essentially saying this was an attempt by fat cat rich Republicans to either A) push their own agenda or B) influence their public appeal.

    As for Bezos, he has gone on record stating that this purchase was because he believes there is untapped potential between print and digital media, and he hopes to leverage it. The likelihood of him pushing any political agenda is minimal, as it doesn’t suit his persona…in my opinion. It is also my opinion that any right-leaning press, especially in print, is a welcome addition to a market that has been predominantly leftist since the 1960’s. There is very little, if any, un-biased news sources available anymore, and that applies to both sides of the coin.

    You pushed forward an agenda here, and did it intentionally. You lambaste about distractions from the thesis of your article, yet you made a point to derail it yourself within the 3rd paragraph.

  8. Steve Dreiseszun at 2:46 am

    @AH:

    Funny, when someone says, “I’ll just leave it at this…” – they rarely do. They just assume that their “words” should be the last word. More often than not though, they still continue to post, assuming that others will be awed by their logic.

    Nope.

    @Michael made observations I agree with. Allen’s article is worthwhile, no matter how loudly others may protest. I’m also quite good at reading, interpreting and judging content and agendas for myself.

    My advice to Allen: Thanks! Keep it up.

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