There are good billionaire media owners and bad. Laurene Powell Jobs has now crossed the line from good to bad.
The Atlantic on Thursday laid off 68 employees, amounting to 17% of its staff, because advertising and its lucrative events business have cratered. Twenty-two of those employees worked in editorial. At the same time, though, the magazine has added 90,000 paid subscribers (including me) since the beginning of March on the strength of its excellent COVID-19 coverage. To cut now strikes me as the equivalent of consumer fraud.
The big question is why Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, would buy a venerable media property if not to provide it with some runway during a crisis. I get that even billionaires want to build sustainable businesses. But that’s not what this is about. This is a short-term move and an insult to all those new subscribers that Jobs presumably wants to retain — not to mention the staff members who worked so hard to attract those new readers.
Another billionaire owner, the celebrity surgeon Patrick Soon-Shiong, recently started slashing and burning at the Los Angeles Times at the first sign of COVID-related trouble, tearing down what he had only recently built up. Again, it makes no sense. If they believed in their strategy before the pandemic, then owners should keep doing what they were doing, provided they can afford it. Jobs and Soon-Shiong can afford it.
Other billionaire owners have taken a different approach. Jeff Bezos has stayed the course at The Washington Post. John Henry has made some cuts here and there at The Boston Globe, but there have been no reports of full-time newsroom staffers being let go, even though ad revenues are down 35%. Then again, Henry wants to hold on to the Globe’s new digital subscribers. Glen Taylor, the billionaire who owns the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, has kept his newsroom intact as well.
There’s an old story that during World War II, when newsprint was rationed, the New York Herald Tribune decided to cut its news coverage so that it could keep its advertising. The New York Times did the opposite — it doubled down on journalism and cut advertising instead. After the war, the Times built a lead that it never relinquished, while the Herald Tribune entered a long decline and went out of business in 1966.
It’s a lesson that Jobs, Soon-Shiong and other billionaire owners ought to ponder. The pandemic will end at some point. If they’re unwilling to sustain their media properties through these bad times, you have to wonder why they bought them.