The sales of the Washington Post to Jeff Bezos and the Boston Globe to John Henry raise the question why people would want to own newspapers if they aren’t doing so for obvious financial gain.
There are clearly people who want to own papers for political purposes so they can directly influence debate and policy. This is certainly the case for the ultra-conservative Koch brothers, who have been trying to buy the Los Angeles Times this past year. But Bezos and Henry don't seem to fit that mold.
Bezos’ purposes for buying the Post are not the pursuit of profit. He certainly would produce better returns putting more effort into Amazon or another commercial firm. John Henry can expect far more returns from effort in his investment firm or his sports empire than the Globe. So why are they buying legacy media?
The answers lie in human traits. All of us need diversions. We need toys to play with; things to spark our interest and imaginations.
Bezos can clearly bring ideas and expertise gained from shifting the mail order catalog concept to the web and contribute his innovative spirit to the Post. The challenges of learning the media business and trying to transform its distribution and operations are clearly interesting and attractive. And the price for the Amazon creator isn’t high.
John Henry doesn’t bring great digital expertise to the Globe, but he does bring strong organization, marketing, and turn-around skills and experience to the effort. He also has strong local community ties and bringing ownership back to Boston is a gift to the city. Especially because hating everything associated with New York is the city's pastime.
The newspaper ownership will also make both of them more respectable as citizens, not just as businessmen. There is a long tradition of wealthy U.S. merchants, industrialists, and traders playing citizenship roles in public life and philanthropy after achieving immense personal success. These range from Andrew Carnegie to J.P. Morgan and J. Paul Getty to Bill Gates.
Some who moved into public roles have done so to gain respectability that eluded them because of harm they caused while climbing to the top; other because of a genuine desire to make society better.
The sales of the Post and the Globe reveal a breed of owner who wants not just respectability or making contributions to society, but a place to use their knowledge and abilities to tackle new challenges. Whether it will help the newspaper industry remains to be seen, but it will at least inject new ways of thinking into the industry.