Big Tech gets an acquired taste for old media


October 20, 2018

The news that Salesforce chief Marc Benioff and his wife Lynne, will buy celebrated US news magazine “Time” for $190 million followed on the heels of the acquisition earlier of the prestigious “Washington Post” by another big boss of the tech industry, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. The spending spree of Silicon Valley billionaires to acquire trophy media assets is a paradox given the fact that their empires have been built on fibre optics and not the typewriters of vintage news rooms.

Yet, it could also easily stand as a real-life testimony that they may have more faith in legacy print media than the previous proprietors and workers in the print media themselves. Big Tech’s two recent acquisitions of traditional media platforms is a contradiction in terms as it has largely been accused of driving the latter to the end of its print run.

Yet, it is a clear sign that traditional print journalism may still have a few more cartridges of ink left in its armoury of near obsolete weapons before the noise of the lithographic printing process is silenced forever. It’s hard to know or speculate with any degree of accuracy the drivers behind these two high-profile media buyouts.

Are they purely the result of old fashioned due diligence for the purposes of growing an existing business and making it more successful? Or mere vanity of a couple of trophy collectors with oversized wallets and even bigger egos who want to gain posterity as benefactors of a dying industry and be known as proponents of freedom of speech?

Or are their actions driven by a desire to acquire influential opinion-shaping channels that could occasionally be called upon to help them protect the reputations of their existing corporations while advancing their commercial interests? Political aspirations, perhaps?

Only Bezos and Benioff would know the actual reasons why and the rest of us may never find out. But what is important for the media industry globally is to ponder and reflect on its own collective strength in times of dire adversity when its purpose is questioned and very existence is at risk.

Because traditional media have been under enormous pressure for a while now, as they struggle to balance their finances and find new purpose and role in the age of digital proliferation. First came Facebook and social media in general, which gradually evolved into news aggregators that daily convert millions of erstwhile thoughtful avid newspaper readers into braindead smartphone and tablet addicts.

And as if that were not enough, journalism itself has had to put up with and endure more grief and ignominy, from tweets to censorship and even persecution elsewhere.

As a result, a plethora of news organisations have either shut down completely or opted in a digital-only mode of survival. After 51 years in print, “Institutional Investor” magazine scrapped its paper edition earlier this year and went digital-only.

Selling 260,000 monthly copies, “Glamour” was the tenth biggest selling magazine in the UK when it shut its doors a few months earlier. And “Interview Magazine”, founded by Andy Warhol in 1969, also decided to pull the plug this year after 49 years of consecutive publishing.

The list is endless and of course in our region things couldn’t differ. “7Days” was among the UAE’s first high-profile newspapers to fold. More newspapers and dozens of magazines followed more recently.

Could Big Tech act as a state-of-the-art deus ex machina and come to the rescue of traditional media to prevent a tragedy of epic proportions — the demise of print media? As ironic as this may sound, it could perhaps be the only answer in what currently seems to be almost a rhetoric question; unless, of course, governments were to resolve that rescuing the Fourth Estate would serve the public interest better than merely turning a blind eye to the manipulation of public opinion by the “Fifth Estate” and fake news.

This article has been published in Gulf News on Saturday October 20.