A personal submarine, a professional sports franchise, a private island, a software replica of your mind, immortality: When you've made a few billion bucks in Silicon Valley, there's not much you can't buy, or at least spend your money pursuing. Wealth is power.

But there's a certain kind of influence that only accrues over decades, or even centuries. It resides in institutions rather than individuals. Which explains why so many individuals who crave influence are offering themselves as saviors to the institutions that have it -- or else going to war against them.

In the buyers column, you have Jeff Bezos, who has resuscitated the fortunes of the Washington Post since he bought it for $250 million in 2013; Laurene Powell Jobs, who stepped in last year as the latest steward of The Atlantic and its 160-year history; and, most recently, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, who made a $190 million deal--an impulsive one, to hear him tell it--to buy Time magazine. 

On the other side, there's venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who spent $10 million to bankrupt Gawker Media, one of the few digital journalism startups to achieve both national scale and long-term success, and Elon Musk, who has been threatening to launch a website called Pravduh that will subject the press to the same nitpicking and crow-mobbing he thinks he shouldn't have to put up with. 

Somewhere in the middle are those who talk a good game about how much they value the institutions of journalism while casually undermining their survival. Put Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter's Jack Dorsey in that bucket, along with Chris Hughes, the former Facebook executive who bought, broke, and flipped The New Republic earlier this decade. 

How will Benioff wield the power that comes with owning a nearly 100-year-old publication? Even some who are skeptical of Silicon Valley idealism are hopeful he'll follow in the path of Bezos. "We had an all-hands meeting on Monday morning, and there was good cheer, laughter, and optimism," Time's editor in chief, Edward Felsenthal, told the Columbia Journalism Review

Count me among those who think Benioff has the makings of an above-average media mogul. Here's why.

He listens more than he talks. 

Did you know much about Bezos's tastes in journalism before he surprised everyone by taking over the Post? Neither did I. That's because he doesn't fancy himself an expert in it. Contrast that with the generosity Musk, Thiel and any number of their peers have shown in dispensing opinions about what is and isn't worthwhile reporting. There's an endemic belief in Silicon Valley that operating or investing in technology companies qualifies you to be a media critic. Bezos doesn't share it. By all accounts, a big part of his success at the Post has been empowering writers and editors to do their jobs the way they know how, not telling them he has a better way. (Another big part has been coming after the feckless Don Graham, its previous owner.) 

Benioff is a guy with some opinions, for sure. (See below.) He hasn't always welcomed scrutiny of his own affairs, to put it mildly, and he didn't even bother to interrupt his massage for a phone call to discuss his purchase of Time. But the fact that he doesn't have a stock critique of the press we're all familiar with is a good omen, and lends some credence to his claim he doesn't plan to meddle in Time's newsroom.

He's not afraid of controversy.

Every CEO in Silicon Valley claims to be mission-driven, but most try to define their missions in a way that doesn't carry them into political territory. Not Benioff. When the state of Indiana passed a "Religious Freedom" law that Benioff saw as legalizing discrimination against gays and lesbians, he used all the tools at his disposal to get it killed, including canceling any plans for Salesforce employees to travel to the state and offering relocation packages for workers seeking to move out of it.

Whether you admire his politics or not, any owner of a publication that succeeds in producing tough journalism is going to find him or herself a target for pressure campaigns soon enough. Benioff's history suggests he's comfortable enough in his convictions to ignore it, even when it costs him some money. Speaking of which.

He's, like, really rich.

Not just kind-of-really-rich, like Hughes, who burned through a reported $20 million of his $700 million fortune trying to make The New Republic profitable and then got cold feet when it didn't work. Benioff, who is worth around $5 billion, can lose $4 million a year in the couch cushions without worrying about it. It helps that Time, unlike TNR, still turns a profit. 

His company doesn't compete with journalism's business model.

No doubt Zuckerberg and Dorsey are sincere in their professions of esteem for journalists and their work. (Well, Dorsey, at least. Whereas Zuckerberg had a hard time telling the New Yorker about any actual news he reads, Dorsey is an outspoken fan of the amazing investigative-reporting nonprofit ProPublica.) But it's hard for them to turn their warm fuzzy sentiments into meaningful support for news organizations when it's the rise of the big internet advertising platforms, especially Facebook and Google, that has siphoned off the lifeblood of the newspaper and magazine industries. Benioff, whose company sells cloud services to enterprise clients, has no such conflict of interest. 

He's not here to make friends. 

Benioff takes over Time at a moment when many of the biggest stories in the news--how hostile foreign powers interfere in American elections; whether antitrust law needs to be updated to reckon with digital monopolies, etc.--involve his peers and neighbors. Silicon Valley is a collegial place where constructive disagreement is OK but full-frontal criticism is impolite. Even outright hostilities, like the enmity between Reed Hastings and Thiel over the latter's support of Trump or the palpable mutual dislike between Musk and Zuckerberg, usually remains behind closed doors. Benioff doesn't talk like a guy who's mindful that he might have to sit on a board with someone he has flamed. His public call for social media to be regulated cuts against tech's libertarian ethos and pits him against half a dozen of his fellow billionaires. It's as good a litmus test as any for whether he'll be the kind of owner who runs interference for his powerful friends, or the kind who lets the journalists who work for him do what he's paying them to do. 

Published on: Sep 20, 2018