Entrepreneurs

Tech billionaires from Bezos to Benioff are buying media companies, but 'New York Times is not for sale'

The New York Times building
Jonathan Torgovnik | Getty Images
The New York Times building

Billionaire Salesforce founder Marc Benioff bought Time. Billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post. The Emerson Collective, a social justice organization founded and run by billionaire Laurene Powell Jobs (the widow of Steve Jobs), bought The Atlantic.

But no billionaire will buy The New York Times, says its publisher, A.G. Sulzberger.

"The New York Times is not for sale," Sulzberger told Recode's Kara Swisher.

Sulzberger isn't criticizing the decisions of other publications: "All of us at the New York Times are delighted to see that because quite frankly we need more journalists in this country," Sulzberger told Swisher, according to a transcript of their conversation published Monday.

"And it is not a zero sum game. And we need a healthy Washington Post in this country. And so we are delighted to see it growing again," he said.

But the Times is different, he said.

"Washington Post is still a significantly smaller paper than the New York Times, and another paper owned by a billionaire, the Wall Street Journal, another very fine paper owned by a billionaire [Rupert Murdoch] is...is also smaller."

In order to protect the business, The New York Times Company has a dual-class share structure: Class A shares are publicly traded and widely held (with a nearly $4.5 billion market cap), while the Ochs-Sulzberger family holds a controlling interest of the Class B shares (that do not trade publicly), which entitles them to elect 70 percent of the board, according to the Times. (The company did take a $250 million loan from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helú in 2009 and paid it back in 2011.)

What the Times would do with a billion-dollar infusion from a wealthy titan is "an interesting question in the abstract," Sulzberger told Swisher, but he still demurred, saying, "We cannot just be reliant on the altruism of people.... We're going to have to make that billion dollars ourselves."

The Times' strategy to be a sustainable business is "to make stuff that's worth paying for. And it's that simple," Sulzberger said.

The New York Times, which has had a paywall on digital content since March 2011, currently has 3.5 million subscribers, according to Sulzberger. On Nov. 1, Mark Thompson, president and chief executive officer of The New York Times Company, said that for the third quarter, subscription revenues accounted for nearly two-thirds of the company's revenues.

Sulzberger also told Swisher more money would not change the quality of the journalism the publication is producing.

"I do not think for a second that the ownership structure of the New York Times is somehow hindering our ability to invest in great journalism. The last year we've expanded our Washington bureau, we've expanded our tech coverage. … We've expanded our business coverage," Sulzberger says to Swisher.

"Point to me where someone has just thrown a ton of money at the journalism problem, just thrown a ton of money and it's worked out well."

Plus, said the publisher, the paper does not want even the appearance of bias.

"The thing that makes the New York Times special, the thing that I think distinguishes us from almost any other news organization, not any, but among a handful of news organizations, is its independence. That is baked into every fiber of what this institution is," Sulzberger said.

See also:

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Correction: This story was revised to reflect that The Emerson Collective is a social justice organization.