Jeff Bezos in 2010
Jeff Bezos (Steve Jurvetson/Wikimedia Commons )

Rich Men’s Games


A version of this story ran in the September 2013 issue.

The big buzz this summer is the news that even more really rich men have decided to try their hands at reviving decimated legacy media outlets. Red Sox owner John Henry is taking over The Boston Globe. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, already pouring millions into a secretive spaceport and a mammoth “10,000 Year Clock” inside a West Texas mountain, just bought The Washington Post. Warren Buffett has forked over millions to build his 88-newspaper empire in Texas and elsewhere. And Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim continues to keep The New York Times afloat.

Maybe it’s just hubris. But with any luck, the new old-media moguls are looking to ape The Orange County Register, where two East Coast tycoons (one of whom made his fortune in greeting cards, the other with breweries) are bucking conventional wisdom. In the year since taking over, they’ve doubled the newsroom staff, put a renewed emphasis on the print product, and added pages. So far, they say, revenues are better than expected and circulation has rocketed.

Time will tell if it works, but one thing is clear regardless: The media landscape in recent years is littered with cautionary examples of Big Rich newspaper owners running amuck and retrenching. Think of real estate magnate Sam Zell’s disastrous oversight of the once formidable Chicago Tribune, or the conglomerate “saviors” of the now-ghostly Philadelphia Inquirer newsroom.

It’s a pretty safe bet that the dial will eventually point to Texas and one of the state’s large metro dailies will wind up in the hands of another mega-wealthy investor who thinks he can save it—or milk it dry. The Austin American-Statesman, on and off the market in recent years, is a likely candidate.

Some Texas media history might serve as a guide to the pros and cons at the nexus of personal wealth and journalism:
This magazine survived for years because of Bernard Rapoport, the Waco insurance executive who dearly loved Molly Ivins and all that The Texas Observer stands for. Rapoport always allowed the magazine to pursue an independent editorial vision. (Ivins, wealthy from her bestselling books and national columns, was also a financial lifeline for the Observer).

The Texas Tribune likewise exists because Austin venture capitalist John Thornton created and bankrolled it. By most accounts, Thornton has left reporters alone (typing “John Thornton” into the Tribune’s search box reveals no in-depth stories about him or the $3.8 billion firm he works with).

But now consider Rupert Murdoch’s late 1973 purchase of the San Antonio Express and the San Antonio News, early American beachheads in Murdoch’s global media empire. Murdoch came to Texas carrying a golden rule: Screaming journalism wins. The News ran pictures of young women in bikinis on page 3. Wacky headlines and newspaper vending machine “rack cards” were ordered to pump up the volume with teasers like “Willie Nelson Song Wakes Woman in Coma”; “Aliens In Desert Battle Over Urine” (for a story about border-crossing immigrants drinking urine to survive); and “Mom Bakes Tot In Oven.”

Bizarre newspaper-sponsored events were concocted by Murdoch’s Texas representatives: Can we start a contest to see who can collect the most dead rats in San Antonio … and bring proof to the paper? Editors once decided to juice marketing efforts by inviting readers to watch an escape artist, padlocked in a straitjacket, hang upside down from a 100-foot crane just outside the front door of the paper’s beautiful Art Deco lobby. Murdoch sold the merged Express-News in 1992, and it took the paper the better part of 20 years to cleanse itself of his mad-money influence—just in time, ironically, to bump head-on into the decline of the newspaper-dominant era of American media.

Today, Murdoch’s reign in Texas seems like a surreal anomaly, but it should also serve as a warning about what can happen when the wrong rich guy comes riding into town on a white horse.