With the sale of the Washington Post to Jeff Bezos--and the sale of the Boston Globe to Red Sox owner John Henry--the feeling that Something Big Was Happening in the world of media ricocheted around the Internet on Monday and Tuesday.
On a basic level, it has been a very busy week. The two newspaper deals, along with the sale of Newsweek to the IBT Media group, came almost all at once. Over the space of a weekend, three major media properties suddenly found themselves in new hands.
Mostly, people have been noticing how many newspapers are being bought by individuals with hundreds of millions, or billions, of dollars to their names. It's happened in San Diego, and Philadelphia, and could very well happen in Chicago and Los Angeles and all of the other cities with papers being sold away by the Tribune Company. Over and over again, the newly-minted media moguls are purchasing titles with a high level of influence and brand recognition at fire-sale prices.
"Newspapers Are Billionaires' Latest Trophies," a New York Times headline read on Monday night.
The trend was pronounced enough for The Atlantic's James Fallows to liken it to something out of the Gilded Age, when the robber barons used some of their ill-gotten gains to invest in philanthropy.
The 20th century saw the transition of the medium from a privately owned, family-dominated one to a publicly owned, corporation-dominated one; the 21st century could well see a massive return to the past, as large conglomerates find less and less use for their declining print titles, and wealthy locals see the upside of owning a powerful voice in their communities. With papers like the New Orleans Times-Picayune hanging on by a thread, there will be many opportunities for a new Hearst to pop up in every city.
Put simply, many newspapers have now become either charity cases—the equivalent of a troubled public library or orchestra—or intriguing diversions for the super-rich. What's not clear is whether Bezos, or Henry, or any of the other moguls casting a glance at titles around the country, are willing to lose money on them--or whether they expect them, against all odds, to continue to be profitable in a rapidly changing market. Also unknown: how much political influence these new media barons will expect to have over outlets that are supposedly free to cover anything they please.
The Post and the Globe will, no doubt, be carefully watched for all of these reasons and more.