When the New York Times’ staff decided to walk out for 24 hours last December, I got it.
Unlike many a media company, the Times is wealthy and increasingly profitable. In the third quarter of 2022, the most recent period at the Times that we have data for, its operating profit rose 9.3% to $51.0 million while its revenue ticked 7.6% higher to $547.7 million. Not bad.
Thanks to its financial results, the Times — with “cash and marketable securities balance [of] approximately $469 million,” no debt, and a massive open credit line at the end of Q3 2022 — is spending lots of money to buy back its shares. Per management it is doing so thanks to their “attractive value,” while also paying out dividends.
If you buy a share of the Times, the buybacks and dividends mean that the company is using a good portion of its cash flow to make your investment more valuable, despite the fact that you are not writing, editing, or publishing a damn thing. In contrast, if you are a wage earner at the Times, your employer aggressively dragged its feet during bargaining season at the end of 2022. It’s a bit dissonant to consider: Yes, your employer is growing and profitable. Yes, it has sufficient cash flow to use a good portion of it to enrich folks who don’t work at the company. But, no, your requests for better compensation during a period of historic inflation are too much.
You can make a pretty reasonable argument that as the Times is a public company, its responsibility is to its shareholders first and not to the staff that actually keep the company running. This is bog-standard capitalism; profits before people, investors before workers. (Yeah, I’ll get to tech layoffs in a coming post, I promise.)
The same calculus, however, doesn’t apply when we consider recent decisions at the Washington Post. Here’s the Times on the news:
The Washington Post laid off 20 people from its newsroom on Tuesday, according to a note sent to its staff. In the note, Sally Buzbee, the executive editor, said the company had also identified 30 open positions that would not be filled. […]
The layoffs affected several departments, including The Post’s metro staff, according to three people with knowledge of the decision. The online gaming vertical Launcher was shut down, as well as KidsPost, a section of the newspaper for children, according to another person with knowledge of the changes.
To which I have to ask: What?
Past the fact that Launcher was likely helping the Post reach younger readers, and that supplying intellectual nourishment to kids is a good thing to do, the Post is not a public company. It doesn’t have shareholders in the same way that the Times does. Indeed, instead of grubby folks buying tiny pieces of the company, the Post has a single owner. You may have heard of Jeff Bezos?
Sure, tech billionaires have seen their fortunes diminish in recent quarters. But Bezos is still so wealthy that it’s hard to understand. Bloomberg pegs his fortune at around $120 billion. Per its useful statistics, that’s enough money to match just over 30% of the “top 100 U.S. college endowments.”
And yet Buzbee had to say in the news item that “while such changes are not easy, evolution is necessary for [the Post] to stay competitive, and the economic climate has guided our decision to act now.” What? Why?
You can argue that the Times’ embarrassing parsimony with its staff is just good business. But the point of buying a publication whole-cloth with your tower of capital is so that you can, I don’t know, keep it sheltered from the sort of economic push and pull that leads to layoffs and reductions in work? Otherwise, why are you buying it at all?
Maybe you want to buy a publication as a form of spite. A spite publication? But that doesn’t seem to be an issue at the Post, at least from what I can glean from people who work there.
It appears to be sheer cheapness on behalf of Bezos. For shame.
If you can spend nearly twice what you spent on the Post on your new mega-yacht you really shouldn’t have to cut staff and entire verticals just because advertising revenue is — I presume — a bit lackluster.
That new Bezos boat has an estimated yearly operating cost of $25 million. Perhaps Bezos can split that cost with another billionaire and put the conserved capital into the Post? Just a thought.
The featured image on this post is an excerpt from a piece of Jené Stephaniuk’s work, whom I wish to thank.
all i want from billionaire owners is transparency - ask them to put things like WaPo on a 2x2 of "hands-on, hands-off" and "run it like a business, run it like a hobby"
If Bezos wants to run it like a business, then i guess it really doesn't matter whether he could fund it 100x or not. These cuts might be short-sighted (to both his personal brand and stated societal goals) but relying on billionaires to fund news orgs out of pocket seems less than optimal too.