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The Washington Post: Can billionaire owners like Jeff Bezos save journalism?

News

The news media in Canada is in crisis. Policy responses to date are failing to solve for the information that citizens need to make informed decisions about important issues and debates. The Future of News series brings together leading practitioners, scholars, and thinkers to imagine new business models, policy responses, and journalistic content that can support a dynamic future for news in Canada.

In 2017, on its 140th birthday, The Washington Post inaugurated its first-ever slogan: Democracy Dies in Darkness. The newspaper, world-famous for taking down former U.S. president Richard Nixon, was now setting its sights on holding the administration of another president to account: Donald Trump. Beneath the branding exercise, however, was a push to revitalize the news outler. After Amazon founder Jeff Bezos purchased The Post in 2013 for $250 million, the newspaper had achieved something rare in the beleaguered journalism industry: profitability

Bezos wasn’t the only billionaire sweeping up a distressed legacy outlet, in hopes of restoring its editorial product and finances. In the 2010s, business magnates bought newspapers across the U.S., ushering in a new generation of press barons: John Henry and The Boston Globe, Glen Taylor and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Patrick Soon-Shiong and the L.A. Times, to name a few. But their efforts have been mixed: from profit and Pultizers, to newsroom uproars and massive financial losses. Among these billionaires, however, Bezos emerged as the shining example of the modern mogul. 

What’s old is new again

Through the 19th century, the business of newspapers, once under the purview of partisan political movements and parties, evolved alongside printing press technology. This enabled wider reach, as well as better distribution among audiences, catapulting the value of advertisements. By the start of the 20th century, William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer, E.W. Scripps and other press barons made their riches off their news properties and bought up others around the country, turning their newspaper chains into empires. 

By the 1970s, many newspapers, still highly profitable, were bought up by publicly-traded companies, becoming subject to the whims of the market, writes journalism professor at Northeastern University’s College of Arts, Media and Design Dan Kennedy in his 2016 report, The Bezos Effect.

But by the 2000s, advertising revenues, the lifeblood of the news industry, were being taken by new players on the internet. Craigslist ate away at the classified section. Google and Facebook cornered the digital advertising market. The results, for newspapers, have been devastating. From 2005 to 2021, around 2,200 American newspapers closed, according to The Washington Post. From 2008 to 2020, the number of newspaper journalists diminished by more than half.

Properties like The Boston Globe, which The New York Times bought for $1.1 billion in 1993, was sold for $70 million (in cash) in 2013 to Boston Red Sox owner John Henry, who made his fortunes trading commodities.

The first generation of press barons built their empires by becoming newspaper publishers, but “for this new generation of barons, it’s the opposite,”  says Kennedy, in an interview with The Hub. “They made their fortunes in other ways, and they were hoping to apply their expertise to the wickedly difficult problem of saving the news business.” 

Turning around The Post

Even storied newspapers like The Washington Post were feeling the pressures of the newspaper industry. In his report, Kennedy documents the financial state of the paper at the end of the famed Graham family’s stint as owners. In the first three quarters of 2011, revenues fell 10 percent, to $3.15 billion, while overall profits dropped 72 percent to $55 million, remaining in the black through cost-cutting. Between 2003 and 2008, The Post reduced its staff of 900 journalists by more than 200. By the time Bezos purchased the paper in 2013, there were around 560 journalists employed. Although the Graham family owned a controlling share of the publicly-traded company, Kennedy says they were still beholden to shareholder demands. On Wall Street, “being profitable isn’t good enough if you can be more profitable,” describes Kennedy. 

Enter Bezos, then the world’s richest man, whose wealth was built on the disruptive force of Amazon, a digital retail company that slogged through years of losses in the pursuit of expansion, before turning massive profits. Kennedy says Bezos then applied the same “Get Big Fast” approach to The Post, which had largely been a metropolitan paper that, only by virtue of its proximity to the seat of the federal government, also covered national politics. Under Bezos and editor-in-chief Marty Baron, The Washington Post pivoted towards a national audience, invested in digital-first content, and optimized the website and mobile app, in the hopes of selling digital subscriptions through bundles. 

“We have historically made a relatively large amount of money per reader on a relatively small number of readers. And we need instead to make a relatively small amount of money per reader on a much larger number of readers,” Bezos said in 2016.

Given billionaire Bezos’ deep pockets, Amazon’s network, and a long-term business plan, The Post was no longer under immediate pressure to turn a profit and was able to focus on improving its editorial product and its digital infrastructure. The paper hired 35 more software engineers to build a new, proprietary content management system (CMS) called “Arc”, along with introducing an array of tools to design infographics and data journalism.

The investments worked. Kennedy writes that in 2015, the Post attracted 66.9 million unique visitors – a 59 percent increase from the previous year, and about a million more unique users than the New York Times. In 2016, Bezos said the newspaper was actually turning a profit. By 2017, the number of journalists employed had climbed from 560 when Bezos took over,  to 700. It reached more than 1,000 by 2021. 

Billionaire Blunders

Despite these successes at The Post, the media mogul business model elsewhere has had, at best, mixed results. 

Technology entrepreneur Aaron Kushner went all-in on print when he bought The Orange County Register in 2012. Financially, “[Kushner] couldn’t even play in the same ballpark as people like Henry and Bezos,” says Kennedy. “So he took his one shot at it, and when it didn’t work, he was out of money,” by 2015. After staff cuts, furloughs and closures the outlet resorted to asking journalists to deliver their own papers.

In 2020, billionaire investor Warren Buffett sold Berkshire Hathaway’s 31 newspapers. “He never had any interest in saving newspapers,” Kennedy admits. “He just saw them as another investment, and, once he decided he had gotten what he was going to get out of them, he moved on. 

The Baltimore Sun’s owner, businessman David Smith, got off to a rocky start after he reportedly told the newsroom in a three hour meeting that, “he had read the paper only a few times in recent months and hadn’t read it at all in the previous 40 years,” He then “urged them to increase profits.”

Smith “seems to have some political agenda at work,” says Victor Pickard, professor of media policy and political economy at the University of Pennsylvania. “I think we should be more leery today in terms of why anyone buy a newspaper at this point. What is their ulterior motive?” The academic recently criticized billionaire ownership in The Conversation.

However, Pickard admits that Bezos appears not to have directly put his thumb on The Post’s editorial needle. Days after his purchase was announced, The Post wrote about Bezos’ tenure at Amazon, highlighting his “tirades” against colleagues and Amazon’s workplace conditions. Bezos even told his reporters to “feel free to cover Amazon any way you want, feel free to cover Jeff Bezos any way you want.”

Among this entitled crop of billionaire owners, Kennedy says Bezos was in a unique position, both in terms of the scale of his finances and with the potential reach of The Washington Post. “He acquired a property that he was able to reposition as a national source of news. The others didn’t have that opportunity,” Kennedy says. But in recent years, even The Post has struggled. The New York Times reported  it was losing money in 2022, as digital subscriptions plateaued and even dipped after 2020. 

In 2023, The New York Times reported the losses for The Post that year could hit $100 million, triggering voluntary buyouts for 240 staff, or roughly 10 percent of the company. The Washington Post did not respond to requests from The Hub for comment. 

“I think that what we’re seeing now is just a cyclical re-adjustment to reality that The Post did not make a good transition to Trump leaving the White House,” Kennedy says. Beyond its bread-and-butter of politics and investigations, he says the paper hadn’t substantially expanded its reach. 

Pickard believes the initial successes of The Post could be attributed more to a temporary “Trump Bump” that capitalized on outrage and intrigue surrounding the controversial president. “The Washington Post, more than most papers, rebranded itself as very critical of the Trump administration,” Pickard says. “ But of course, now there’s,  if anything, probably Trump fatigue.” 

Meanwhile, its main competition The New York Times acquired The Athletic, a popular online sports publication, hired conservative opinion writers that could speak to Americans who leaned right and even branched out its digital offerings to include recipes and even games. “You get it for Wordle as much as you do for anything,” Kennedy says. 

Despite the setback, Kennedy notes that The Post’s editorial staff levels remain far above before Bezos first purchased the paper. “It may be that the years that Trump was in the White House will prove to be the high watermark for The Post. But if they could stop shrinking and grow modestly again, I think they’re still in good hands,” he says.

Pickard is less optimistic. “I really think by now, we should be facing the uncomfortable fact that there is no market-based future for the kinds of journalism that democracy requires,” he says. “We’re still seeing the crumbling of the advertising revenue model. And the data keeps showing that only a small percentage of readers are willing to pay for news.” 

While he acknowledges there are pockets of billionaire success, like the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and The Boston Globe, he says the model is not easily replicable, especially in local communities. “[Billionaires] might save a newspaper here and there, but it’s not ever going to serve as a systemic fix.” 

A Washington Post newspaper box is seen in Washington, Friday, May 4, 2007. Lawrence Jackson/AP Photo.
What about Canada’s billionaires?

Replicating the Bezos model is challenging enough in the U.S., and is even more complicated in Canada. “There are only so many billionaires in Canada. And, by definition, the group of those who are benevolent will be even smaller,” says Ed Greenspon, president and CEO of the Public Policy Forum. “You’re fishing in a pretty small pool here.” 

In 2017, Greenspon, a former editor-in-chief at The Globe and Mail, authored the Shattered Mirror report, which assessed the state of journalism in Canada. At the time, he noted that three billionaire families already owned newspapers in Canada: The Thomsons owned The Globe and Mail, the Irvings owned the Brunswick News chain, and the Desmarais family had La Presse. As of 2024, the Thomsons are the last of a dying breed. The Irving family sold its papers to Postmedia, while the Desmarais family divested from LaPresse, as it converted into a non-profit. 

“We don’t really know how [The Globe and Mail] does [financially]. But it has almost 50 years of support and identity and dedication to it as an asset,” Greenspon says about the paper’s long term sustainability. Given its track record, Greenspon believes the Thomson family would be willing to “give back”, by holding back from extracting profits from the paper, at the cost of its editorial product. “They may not attain their maximum return from that particular asset, and I think they’ve been content with that.” The Globe and Mail’s editor-in-chief David Walsmley and President and CEO Andrew Saunders did not respond to The Hub’s requests for comment. There is no publicly available information around whether the paper turns a profit or not.

Another Canadian issue for billionaire buyers, Greenspon notes, is scale. “If you want to primarily appeal to a Canadian audience, that’s going to be a much smaller audience,” he says. Bezos’ “Get Big Fast” motto worked for The Washington Post because the outlet could, through its coverage of federal politics, expand its digital presence across a country of 331 million people, and even draw international eyes. Meanwhile, a national paper in Canada can only draw an audience roughly a tenth that size.

Plus, the economic incentives of the internet “has a higher propensity to reward scale,” Greenspon says. Meanwhile, profitability achieved by widespread digital reach could end up diluting news geared towards Canadians. Publications like Vice Media, he notes, “grew out of their Canadian roots very quickly, because there were larger markets.”

Greenspon’s report outlined various solutions, including tax incentives, stronger regulation of intellectual property laws, opening up charity laws to help the creation of journalism foundations, and mandates for both The Canadian Press and the CBC. 

But “I’m open to any model,” he says. “Not-for-profit models, publicly supported models, private sector models— they all might have their place.” 

“Who knows?” Greenspons says. “If you could be a great innovator, you might be able to become a billionaire.” 

Editors Note: The Hub’s Editor-at-Large Sean Speer is a Senior Fellow at the Public Policy Forum, which Edward Greenspon leads. Therefore, he did not take part in the editorial decisions involved in this article.

The Future of News series is supported by Meta and Hub contributors like you. 

SaltWire files for creditor protection with $94m debt: The end of Atlantic Canada’s newspaper giant?

News

The news media in Canada is in crisis. Policy responses to date are failing to solve for the information that citizens need to make informed decisions about important issues and debates. The Future of News series brings together leading practitioners, scholars, and thinkers to imagine new business models, policy responses, and journalistic content that can support a dynamic future for news in Canada.

In 2017, the Dennis-Lever family, owners of Halifax’s historic Chronicle Herald, founded in 1874, purchased 27 newspapers across Atlantic Canada and placed them under the banner of the newly formed “SaltWire Network.” The acquisitions, which included St. John’s’ Telegram and Charlottetown’s Guardian, were purchased for an estimated $27 to $34 million dollars. They effectively became part of the largest private media company in the region. At the time, SaltWire CEO Mark Lever was criticized for making such a large commitment to such a precarious industry, and for spending millions while telling striking Chronicle Herald employees that revenues had declined.   

Seven years later, that criticism has proved prescient. 

After years of closing and merging papers, SaltWire announced last week it has filed for creditor protection. It blamed “unprecedented challenges” in Canadian media for its staggering $94 million debt. Its creditor, Fiera Private Debt, says SaltWire has been “demonstrably mismanaged,” and that paycheques and pensions have been withheld from employees. 

SaltWire did not respond to questions from The Hub regarding its finances, but in a press release, it said creditor protection was “a proactive step towards restructuring our finances and operations to build a more resilient and sustainable future.” It added that it remains “fully committed to delivering high-quality journalism.”

“This is huge,” says Brian Daly, an assistant professor of Journalism at University of King’s College in Halifax. “We’re talking about a population in Nova Scotia that just hit one million, so anything that happens in the news landscape is going to be amplified beyond what it would be in the larger centres.”

But while Daly acknowledges that modern news organisations face uphill battles, he questions SaltWire’s suggestion that their struggles were “unprecedented.” 

“When I hear language like that, I’m not buying it,” Daly says. “What new challenges have come up that we didn’t already know about? The challenges the newspaper industry faces are not new. We have old ideas, and people who don’t want to change.” 

Daly adds “The same problems we saw 20 years ago, they’re still endemic and could be encapsulated in the specifics of the SaltWire story.” “I have flashbacks when I hear about pension mismanagement. We’re making the same mistakes in 2024.”

As Daly explains, local news consumption has declined since the onset of the digital age and social media continues to eat into revenue opportunities. Today, if SaltWire cannot find a new strategy, many of Atlantic Canada’s most trusted and well-known news sources could be wiped out simultaneously.  

Precedented challenges 

In a flattering 2013 InBusiness profile, written after Sarah Dennis and Mark Lever took over the Chronicle Herald after longtime publisher Graham W. Dennis’ death, the pair discussed having a less romantic view of the newspaper industry. “It’s a business, and you have to run it like a business,” Dennis said. 

But business did not go well. As independent alternatives like The Halifax Examiner and allNovaScotia adapted to the digital age with hard paywalls and focused editorial visions, The Chronicle Herald went through layoffs in 2014, a 2015 battle with its printing press union, and a lockout of its newsroom staff that stretched from January 2016 through August 2017. In 2019, The Chronicle Herald sued TC Transcontinental, accusing the Montreal-based company of misrepresenting the finances of the papers SaltWire had purchased from them. 

The suit’s outcome is still pending, but by the time the lockout was resolved, The Chronicle Herald had faced accusations of strikebreaking and union busting and made national headlines when inexperienced scab employees posted—then retracted—a sensational, unverified story about violent Syrian refugees. The union ultimately agreed to a longer work week, pay cuts, and layoffs. Jobs at other SaltWire papers were also cut. SaltWire was far from the only news organisation to undergo cuts but such incidents did not engender confidence that it was the right company to lead its acquisitions. 

“The allegations from the creditors are very familiar,” Daly says. “The problems being described with SaltWire have been made by other media companies that acquired properties they didn’t believe in, or that weren’t smart acquisitions. There are other ways, and there are certainly news organisations doing it the right way.” 

Journalist and columnist Paul Schneidereit, who worked at the Chronicle Herald between 1983 and 2023 before taking a voluntary buyout, was there for SaltWire’s formation and the broader challenges the paper faced. 

“There were some changes the company wanted that the union wasn’t keen on,” says Schneidereit. “When we went on strike, we had 60-some newsroom members. I believe only 29 of us went back. The local production desk was moved elsewhere. Those jobs were gone.” 

Schneidereit, who serves as the Canadian Association of Journalists’ treasurer, notes that SaltWire consolidation did have its advantages. 

“We were able to reach out to colleagues at other papers and combine forces on things,” he says. “The Herald was seen as a flagship of the new network. We had the biggest newsroom, even though it was a shadow of what it had been once.” 

In SaltWire’s defence, the struggles of local journalism preceded its existence by decades. Schneidereit notes the Chronicle Herald’s newsroom included more than 100 journalists in the ‘80s. Today all of SaltWire’s papers employ 100 journalists.

“It’s been a horror show for the past 20 years, across Canada and beyond Canada,” Schneidereit says. “Papers closing left, right, and centre, journalists losing their jobs. And of course Facebook and Google, until recently, refusing to pay anything for all the news they scalp, that hasn’t helped.” 

SaltWire could clearly not adapt to all these challenges. As they try to survive, many are asking what lessons can be learned from their competitors.

Paywalls and emerging non-profits 

The fate of SaltWire’s portfolio remains undetermined. A worst-case scenario would see Atlantic Canada banished to a news desert, one where broadcast news and new independent publications simply cannot fill the hole that Saltwire potentially leaves behind. For now, the Nova Scotia Supreme Court has granted SaltWire temporary credit protection. It’s conceivable that its flagship brands will be sold or restructured, but it’s difficult to imagine employees emerging unscathed. 

“This latest news hit hard,” says Professor Daly. “The Chronicle Herald is a heritage property. There’s symbolic significance and a real-life impact on people.”

Daly adds that while there is still an older audience willing to pay for this sort of news, SaltWire’s soft paywall and ad-focused business model remains inherently broken. 

“We might see the large properties stay open, there’s brand recognition, and there are subscribers. We shouldn’t dismiss anyone over 55 as an unimportant market, they have the most money and are disproportionately subscribing to newspapers, he explains. “However, there are endemic industry issues, and if they’re not solved we might be right back here having this conversation again in five years. There are so many options for companies to thrive in the modern ecosystem, but it’s not going to be by selling ads.” 

Despite SaltWire’s collapse, Daly is actually optimistic about journalism in Atlantic Canada. allNovaScotia, which offers paying subscribers straightforward coverage of politics and business, expanded to Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, and Alberta between 2016 and 2024. That’s impressive growth in a struggling industry, and it’s come from picking up the slack left by failing legacy newspapers. 

The last edition of the Halifax Daily News sits in a box in Dartmouth, N.S. as the money-losing paper closed Monday, Feb. 11, 2008. Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press.

“They’re entirely behind a paywall,” Daly says. “They only focus on politics and business. They’re not terribly partisan. That model is working. If you find, hypothetically, 35,000 people willing to pay, that can sustain a news organisation. I’m very surprised to see that mainstream news organisations are afraid to have a hard paywall.” 

Daly also highlighted La Presse’s 2018 shift to nonprofit status. He notes that Montreal’s newspaper of record continues to enjoy a strong subscriber base and impressive financial reports, making it one of Canada’s largest newsrooms. La Presse discontinued its physical paper on New Year’s Eve 2017, and it benefits from a homogenous French-speaking audience, but it still has lessons to teach papers like the Chronicle Herald.  

“Their annual report is some of the best news I’ve seen in journalism,” Daly says. “The non-profit model has been more successful than the profit model. They still sell ads, they try to make as much money as they can, but the profits get reinvested back into the newsroom instead of buying bigger Mercedes-Benzes. It helps that La Presse is a big brand, but there’s a precedent for adopting a model like that and finding success.” 

That’s not to dismiss the for-profit model entirely. Daly spoke glowingly about working at CTV at a time when “they believed strongly in that local news model” and “heavily promoted [that] work.”

But that journalism profit is increasingly difficult to find, and owners are often unable or unwilling to hunt for it. Tightening profit margins can also produce strategic tensions. There is little financial gain in covering, for example, a politician’s press conference, but Canadians have the right to hear about it. 

“Some journalists spend weeks or months on an investigation, I don’t believe that should be given away [for free to readers],” Daly says. “But some journalism covers events we should have the right to know about. That’s different, let that stuff go out for free. So I think there needs to be a mixed model there.” 

The nonprofit model could be the path forward for publications like the Chronicle Herald. As much as modern organisations like allNovaScotia can help fill in the gaps, legacy publications hold an essential place in the media ecosystem. That position is now threatened. 

The future and the past 

The Telegram, which has served St. John’s, Newfoundland since 1879, was recently shortlisted for a National Newspaper Award for its 2023 exposé of the city jail’s living conditions. Schneidereit worked on the Chronicle Herald’s 2018 investigation of a Nova Scotia health services contract with a biased bidding process, potentially costing the province millions. These are the types of stories that local papers, despite cuts and alternatives, remain equipped to cover and that Canadians, despite a shrinking willingness to spend money on news, deserve to know about, insists Schneidereit.  

“The Herald, like a lot of papers, has archives going back well over a century. We used to cover every school board and town council,” Schneidereit says. “I’m not blaming the Herald for cutting back, because everyone’s had to cut back. But you don’t realise what you’re losing if it’s happening bit by bit. You don’t know what you don’t know. And when people don’t know what’s going on, there’s opportunity to get away with things people would not be happy about if they knew about them.” 

Schneidereit isn’t all negative. He says that “really fine journalism is being done by people working in online-only operations.” But he also notes that newspapers offer journalists legal protection, the lack of which can make “digging into a juicy story with sharp edges” unpalatable for an independent operator. 

Despite those risks, Daly has seen entrepreneurial students go out and cobble together salaries from podcasting, crowdfunding, and journalism grants. Stories like SaltWire’s collapse may contribute to an atmosphere of malaise, but the industry continues to soldier on in new forms. 

Still, the Chronicle Herald has been part of the Halifax landscape since 1874, only seven years after Canada was born. To lose it would be to lose a slice of history to what he describes as misguided mismanagement. 

“Local and regional pride, that intense pride in your community, is so much stronger here than in other places I’ve lived,” Daly says. “The newspaper is part of that. The newspaper has been part and parcel of Atlantic history. If a big paper is lost, we’ve lost quite a bit.”

The Future of News series is supported by Meta and Hub contributors like you.