From classifieds to display ads to subscriptions, the digital age has broken the financial pillars of print journalism, leaving the industry struggling to stand on its own. But more frequently — and with a boom last week, when Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, bought The Washington Post — the tycoons who have led the digital revolution are giving traditional print outlets a hand.
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.
“They’re 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 Newmark’s