Philanthropists who own or back media

Andrew Milner and Charles Keidan

The following is a small selection of philanthropists who have exploited the potential power of media as part of a wider philanthropic or commercial arsenal:

Pierre Omidyar

Founder of eBay Pierre Omidyar has, in his own words, a maturing ‘interest in supporting independent journalists in a way that leverages their work to the greatest extent possible, all in support of the public interest. And, I want to find ways to convert mainstream readers into engaged citizens’.

Omidyar, who remains chair of eBay, is apparently very concerned about government-spying programmes, exposed by ex-Guardian correspondent Glenn Greenwald. He is quoted in a news article in as saying that he ‘explored purchasing the Washington Post’ before Jeff Bezos actually did so, but instead, founded Intercept in 2013, a journalism site focused on transparency, civil liberties and national security and led by Glenn Greenwald. Omidyar had previously set up Honolulu Civil Beat, a news website covering public affairs in Hawaii, which aims to create a new online journalism model with paid subscriptions, though it is unclear how successful it has been.

No longer involved in day-to-day operations at eBay, he stressed that his venture would remain separate from his numerous philanthropic, business and political interests, run mainly through an entity called the Omidyar Network. According to Forbes, Omidyar’s net worth stands at $10.2 billion.

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Laurene Powell Jobs

In July this year, Laurene Powell Jobs, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and philanthropist, acquired a majority stake in The Atlantic magazine, which she called ‘one of the country’s most important and enduring journalistic institutions’.

It was founded by American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, after whom another of Jobs’ initiatives is named. The Emerson Collective uses entrepreneurship to advance social reform and support educational causes. This is not her first foray into the media.

In the past, she has taken a minority stake in Hollywood studio Anonymous Content and has supported non-profit journalism through investments in the Marshall Project and ProPublica.

David Bradley, from whom she acquired the stake, will continue as chair of The Atlantic’s parent company, Atlantic Media. Jobs is not buying a share in a lame duck. According to one source, digital advertising now accounts for 80 per cent of revenue. The company altogether attracts a monthly audience of 33 million and makes a profit of ‘well above $10 million per year’.

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Robert Mercer
Robert Mercer and the Mercer Family Foundation are significant supporters of media. Mercer is a major backer of the Media Research Center, which describes itself as having an ‘unwavering commitment to neutralising leftwing bias in the news, media and popular culture’.

Through his hedge fund, Mercer has funded the self-styled media watchdog to the tune of over $10 million in the past decade according to an article in the UK’s Observer. Beginning as a computer scientist at IBM, Mercer went on to become CEO of Renaissance Technologies, a hedge fund that makes its money by using algorithms to model and trade on the financial markets. Initially a supporter of Ted Cruz in the 2016 US presidential race, he transferred his allegiance to Donald Trump, becoming his biggest donor.

The Observer also claims that it was $10 million of Mercer’s money that enabled Steve Bannon to fund right-wing news site Breitbart in 2012. Set up with the express intention of being a Huffington Post for the right, it is now a popular site with two billion page views a year and is the biggest political site on Facebook and on Twitter.

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Jeff Bezos
It might not be out of place to mention Jeff Bezos in this list, though his purchase of the Washington Post in 2013 was not a philanthropic initiative – at least, not expressly. The founder of Amazon claims he bought the newspaper because he wanted to make it into a more powerful national – and even global – publication, and that The Post was well situated to be a watchdog over the leaders of the world’s most powerful country.
Since his takeover, the Post’s readership has grown and its content ‘has become more suitable for the digital world’, according to Business Insider UK. However, the path to newspaper ownership provides a commentary on the tensions between business and philanthropy. Fredrick Kunkle, who writes for The Washington Post’s Metro desk, castigated Bezos for expressing a desire to increase his philanthropic efforts despite a record of ‘treating [his employees] poorly’.

In a piece published in the Huffington Post, he accuses Bezos of cutting retirement benefits, freezing a company pension plan and holding severance payments ‘hostage’ by requiring outgoing employees to drop any legal claims to receive payment. Kunkle’s article also notes ‘Amazon’s history of dodging taxes, its mistreatment of workers, and its ruthlessness toward even the smallest competitors have been well documented’.

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Evgeny Lebedev
It’s in fact the father-son team of Alexander and Evgeny Lebedev who own both the Independent and Evening Standard newspapers in the UK, in addition to the London Live TV channel.

Evgeny Lebedev is a philanthropist and has supported a number of causes including the protection of elephants and Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital in London and, through the Independent’s website, has campaigned against modern slavery. But while they have put an estimated £120 million into British newspapers, the Lebedev’s ownership of the two newspapers is by no means a piece of philanthropy. The Evening Standard, in fact, though close to bankruptcy when acquired, now makes a profit according to an article in The Spectator.

A prominent part of London’s social scene, Lebedev divides opinion. Those who like him draw attention to his business acumen, his willingness to put money into what seems a dying business, even for his sartorial sense. On the other hand, his detractors point to the offensive whimsicality of the mega wealthy that he is said to display.

Since assuming ownership of the Evening Standard, the paper’s support for conservative views and Conservative politicians has been notable. This included the paper’s backing of billionaire mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith and the recent appointment of the former Conservative Chancellor, George Osborne, as editor of the paper.

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Mark Zuckerberg
Zuckerberg is not a philanthropist who acquired a tech media company, but someone who became rich – and from there, a philanthropist – by creating one.

In 2012, he floated Facebook for $16 billion. His wealth is now estimated at $74 billion and he was ranked by Forbes in 2016 as the fifth richest person in the world.

Today, Facebook is central to the story of philanthropy and media as a platform for news, views and content, and is used by two billion people around the world.

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Sir Paul Marshall


Co-founder and chair of one of Europe’s largest hedge fund groups, Marshall Wace, Paul Marshall’s media and public activity goes back to 2004, when he co-edited The orange book: reclaiming liberalism with MP David Laws, which sought to reaffirm the fundamental underpinning of the UK’s Liberal Democrats. The Orange Book set the stage for a distinctly more rightwards and free-market shift, eventually paving the party’s entry into coalition government with the Conservatives in 2010.

More recently, Marshall has also become one of the funders of UnHerd, a right of centre news website which promises to focus on ‘the important things rather than the latest things’. According to its CEO, former Conservative adviser and Times journalist Tim Montgomerie, ‘its journalists will be given the time and will possess the skills to dive deeply into their subject areas.

Together they will challenge out-of-date, incorrect and even dangerous thinking on economics, politics, technology, religion and the media’. In 2016, Marshall committed £30 million to the LSE to found the Marshall Institute for Philanthropy and Social Entrepreneurship, which aims ‘to increase the impact and effectiveness of private action for public benefit’.

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