From Franklin to Benioff, a well-intentioned proprietor is best for a media company, ex-media exec says

  • A billionaire with good intentions might be the best kind of owner for a media organization, former CNN chairman and Time managing editor Walter Isaacson says.
  • Isaacson says Marc Benioff has pure intentions when it comes to Time, but he will probably apply his business savvy to running the company, similar to what Jeff Bezos has done at The Washington Post.

A billionaire with good intentions might be the best kind of owner for a media organization, former CNN chairman and Time managing editor Walter Isaacson told CNBC on Monday.

"I tend to think that a well-intentioned, good sole proprietor, starting with Ben Franklin and now going all the way to Marc Benioff, is probably a better way to run a news operation," Isaacson said on CNBC's "Power Lunch."

Meredith Corporation on Sunday announced Benioff, the founder of Salesforce, and his wife, Lynne Benioff, have agreed to buy Time magazine for $190 million in cash from media and marketing company Meredith Corporation. The deal is expected to be completed within 30 days and is independent of Salesforce. According to the release, the Benioffs won't be involved in "day-to-day operations or journalistic decisions."

"We are honored to be the caretakers of one of the world's most important media companies and iconic brands," the Benioffs said in a statement.

Benioff is the latest billionaire to snap up a media company, joining the likes of Amazon's Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, and Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple's Steve Jobs, whose nonprofit in July 2017 purchased a majority stake in The Atlantic.

President Donald Trump has been critical of Bezos' ownership of The Washington Post, claiming the billionaire is using the newspaper as "a lobbyist for Amazon." Isaacson said it is prudent to watch for signs of bias when a media organization is run by a single person but that he is not concerned with that in the case of Benioff or Bezos.

"Yes, there is always a risk that some media baron ... would somehow use their outlet, their publication to advance their political goals, or to advance their personal and business goals. So you gotta be on the watch out for that," Isaacson said.

"You don't see a hint of that in Jeff Bezos, and I can promise you, you aren't going to see a hint of that in Marc Benioff," he added.

Isaacson said Benioff has pure intentions when it comes to Time.

"You could have had different private equity firms, others come in to do it, try to break it up or milk its circulation base. Here's a guy doing it because he believes in it, believes in the brand. And I couldn't be happier," Isaacson said.

The media industry on the whole has suffered, as digital-native competitors such as Facebook and Google consume increasing shares of advertising revenue. Print publications, such as The Denver Post, have been hit especially hard, as digital media becomes the choice medium for news consumption.

Once you mix the fiduciary responsibilities of a public company with media, Isaacson said, it is all too easy for the public service element of journalistic organizations to be overshadowed by profit-seeking.

"When you start making it a public company that can be bought and sold and activist shareholders, you lose what a media company has to do, which is keep an eye not just on the shareholder interests ... but also the stakeholder interests, the reader interest and the public interest," Isaacson said.

That doesn't mean Benioff is going to bankroll Time. Isaacson said Benioff will apply his own business savvy to running the company, similar to what Bezos has done at The Washington Post, but not to the point of compromising its integrity.

Isaacson said, "Just like Bezos with The Washington Post, I would think Marc is trying to make it bigger, better, more profitable, but he's also doing it not saying, 'What is the maximum return on investment I could have had on this $190 million?'"