How rich are the Sulzbergers feeling right now?
Jeff Bezos, with a net worth of $28 billion, according to Bloomberg, just handed over $250 million to the Grahams of Washington for the Washington Post. The deal follows the sale last weekend of the Boston Globe, which was sold by the New York Times (largely owned by the Sulzbergers) for $70 million to billionaire Boston Red Sox principal owner John Henry.
The Grahams and Sulzbergers are both extremely rich. Bezos and Henry, however, are super-duper-rich. And if you want to own a world-class newspaper, and hang around waiting to see if technological changes one day transform it from a money suck into a profit machine again, it seems being extremely rich is no longer quite rich enough.
The Grahams and Sulzbergers have been waiting more than a decade for someone to figure out a new advertising technology that makes digital text as valuable as print used to be. A full-page Saks Fifth Avenue ad in the Sunday paper pops right out at the reader. It looks great and, from the newspaper owner's perspective, comes with the added benefit that you can't really track whether or not it works. (But it delivers great brand association!)
A digital ad, by contrast, often looks sort of shady and comes with a meter telling you exactly how many individuals have clicked on it. And, boy, is it cheap to buy. If your wealth is based on clicks, it's liable to evaporate pretty quickly.
It's a measure of the stratospheric difficulties associated with owning an excellent newspaper that only people with stratospheric wealth need apply. Being rich doesn’t cut it anymore.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)