Call it a sense of obligation. Or responsibility. Or maybe there is even a twinge of guilt. Helping print journalism adapt to a changed era is becoming a cause de jour among the technology elite.
Google, which has been criticised for profiting from news content created by others, began financing journalism fellowships for eight people this year. The founder of Craigslist, the free listing service that helped ruin newspapers classified advertising, helped finance a book on ethics for journalists.
A co-founder of Facebook, the social network many young people rely on for news, recently bought New Republic magazine, and the founder of eBay, another classified ad killer, started an online news service in Hawaii. Steve Jobs, the former Apple CEO, went out of his way to advise newspapers how to adapt their products for the tablet era.
So ironic, Les Hinton, a former publisher of The Wall Street Journal, wrote in a Twitter post last week about Bezos, that The Washington Post should be consumed by a pioneer of the industry that almost destroyed it.
Technology industry leaders, who deal in fact and code, are supporting the press because they value it, said Merrill Brown, director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University and the former editor-in-chief of MSNBC.com.
Theyre concerned about where the country is going and share a commonly held point of view that what we do is important for democracy, said Brown, who is also a partner at the venture capital firm DFJ Frontier.
On the business side of newspapers, executives have done little to hide their suspicions about the technology companies that are reaching out. Several years ago, while Hinton was publisher of The Wall Street Journal, he described Google as a vampire sucking the blood from newspapers because of how it aggregated news articles on its Google News site.
Frank Blethen, publisher and chief executive of The Seattle Times, scoffed last week at overtures Craiglist founder Craig Newmark had made to journalism causes. He clearly disrupted classified advertising, Blethen said. He added dismissively about Newmarks efforts in journalism ethics, and now hes portraying himself in this public policy realm.
Newmark declined to comment on why newspaper officials blamed him. He said he supported journalism initiatives media ethics and fact-checking are two pet causes because he valued news he could trust. He said he was not even convinced that Craigslist had hurt newspaper classified advertising.
Im still waiting to see any hard evidence for cause-and-effect, Newmark said. Ive been paying attention for a long time.
Newmark said he donated $42,000 to the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in Florida, to host a seminar related to a book Poynter recently published on journalism ethics and for the development of a related website.
When the complaints about Google from newspaper executives reached their peak in 2009, Eric Schmidt, then the companys chief executive, said that Google had a moral responsibility to help the press because of its societal role of providing transparency.
Since then, the search giant has been cozying up to journalists in a growing variety of ways, financing reports on the impact of the internet on journalism, sponsoring journalism conferences and donating to press advocacy groups. Last week, it hosted TechRaking, an event on the use of data in reporting, at its Silicon Valley campus with the Centre for Investigative Reporting.
Richard Gingras, senior director of news and social products at Google, said complaints from newspaper publishers in the past were based on a false belief that Google News was diverting traffic from their sites. He said relations between publishers and Google, which sends news sites about six billion visits a month, have improved steadily over time.
These have been challenging times for traditional publishers, Gingras said. I think weve also come a long way in the sense of recognising that we need to be more up front in how we speak to the industry. The money technology companies and their founders are spending to support journalism can be viewed in a more cynical way: As an investment in public relations with a struggling industry that can still cause trouble for them or, conversely, further their business interests. The sums are relatively small in any case. The $250 million Bezos is paying for The Washington Post, for example, represents about 1% of his estimated $25-billion fortune.
But Esther Wojcicki, a teacher of high school journalism and the mother-in-law of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, said the motivations of the tech people supporting the press, many of whom she has spoken to, were more sincere. They are concerned, she said, that what theyre doing has impacted a very important part of American culture.