July 28, 2017; Washington Post
Democracy becomes a government of bullies tempered by editors.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
While the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative LLC is fairly well known, fewer of our readers may have heard much about the Emerson Collective LLC, which is run by Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs’ widow, and invests significantly and anonymously in “education, immigration reform, the environment, and other social justice initiatives.” The Emerson Collective has just bought majority shares in the 160-year-old magazine, The Atlantic.
The Atlantic has been on a run in recent years. The magazine now counts 80 percent of its revenue from non-print sources—advertising, live events and a consulting business. It has added marquee staffers in recent months and has grown its audience prodigiously.
Powell Jobs, reputed to be worth $11 billion, is hardly the first tech billionaire to choose to spend money on journalism. Perhaps the most notable buy of an iconic newspaper has been the purchase of the Washington Post by Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos, but Pierre Omidyar’s was one of the first, investing in the Honolulu Civil Beat and then The Intercept. There have been a number of others, each testing a slightly different concept.
Powell Jobs commented, “I’m personally interested in deploying capital in the most effective way to create the greatest good that we can.” (The LLC structure, of course, allows for great flexibility and little transparency.) Indeed, the Emerson Collective has already put its toes in the water by supporting online news sites Axios and ProPublica.
Leadership at The Atlantic will remain unchanged, according to an announcement by the company, but the partnership forged through the sale is eventually expected to give way to sole ownership by the Emerson Collective. Former owner David Bradley will retain control of some of the other entities in Atlantic Media, a collection of publications and businesses employing 730 people. He wrote in his announcement to staff,
So, for some time, the strategy question nagging my thought is this: “What could we do in the next ten years worthy of the ten years just gone by?” I assume a Wall Street analyst would tell us, “Not a thing. There is no ‘broad, sunlit uplands’ for serious journalism.”
What I loved about Laurene from the first is that her confidence was forged on a different coast. And, if anything, her ambition is greater than my own. So, let’s make it our work to prove the wisdom of our era wrong. And, when my time comes to leave, that would be a happy note on which to say “good-bye.”
There’s some poetry at work here: One of the cofounders of The Atlantic was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who inspired the name and mission of the Jobs-backed Emerson collective. Powell described the purpose of The Atlantic (and her reason for making the purchase) as striving to “bring about equality for all people; to illuminate and defend the American idea; to celebrate American culture and literature; and to cover our marvelous, and sometimes messy, democratic experiment.”
But, alas, there is no outside. If moneyed interests didn’t buy democracy, democracy wouldn’t need saving by them.—Ruth McCambridge