Laurene Powell Jobs is a media mogul with a mission.
From Robert P. Baird’s “Benevolent Haze,” posted Thursday in the Columbia Journalis Review:
Powell Jobs, who is fifty-seven, has often said that she named the Emerson Collective for Ralph Waldo Emerson, and particularly for his essay “Self-Reliance.” The organization started small; in the early years, it was focused primarily on advocacy work in education, climate, immigration, and gun violence prevention. Powell Jobs gave money to a handful of nonprofit newsrooms engaged with those subjects, such as Chalkbeat. She also invested in Ozy Media, a millennial news site cofounded by a friend of hers. But it was not until 2016, around the time of McGray and Edwards’s visit to Palo Alto, that Emerson started a major expansion that included, for the first time, a determined focus on media.
In the years since, Emerson’s media investments have grown quickly in scale. Through Emerson, Powell Jobs has acquired equity in a number of Hollywood production companies, including a controlling share of Anonymous Content, which helped create Mr. Robot, Spotlight, and George Clooney’s Midnight Sky. Since 2015, according to a person familiar with Emerson’s finances, she has spent roughly a quarter of a billion dollars on journalism.
In July 2017, in the surest sign of Powell Jobs’s ambitions to date, Emerson bought a 70 percent stake in The Atlantic, the magazine that was cofounded by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and her for-profit media portfolio now also includes investments in Axios; The Athletic; and Pushkin Industries, the podcast company founded by Jacob Weisberg and Malcolm Gladwell. In addition, she has helped fund a slew of nonprofit news organizations—including ProPublica, the Marshall Project, Grist, the Texas Tribune, The Trace, Christianity Today, CalMatters, El Paso Matters, Climate Central, Reveal, Lawfare, and The 19th—and given money to “infrastructure” organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists; the Solutions Journalism Network; and the American Journalism Project, a relatively new foray into “venture philanthropy” that supports local news outlets such as the VTDigger, in Vermont; MLK50, in Memphis; and The Oaklandside, in California. Recently, Powell Jobs invested in a new book-publishing venture launched by Cindy Spiegel and Julie Grau, industry veterans who were founding editors of Riverhead Books.
Part of what makes these investments and grants notable is their sheer accumulation. In late 2018, Ben Horowitz, the venture capitalist, surprised Powell Jobs by referring to her as a “media mogul” in front of a crowd. “I don’t think anybody would call me a media mogul except you,” she shot back, which was accurate, on some level. Though Powell Jobs’s acquisition of The Atlantic gave her a visible perch within the hothouse of American media—early this month, she assumed the title of board chair—no one would quite compare her to Barry Diller or S.I. Newhouse Jr. Still, Horowitz’s characterization was not entirely hyperbolic. In recent years, Powell Jobs has made Emerson into a powerful, if not always obvious, tectonic force shaping the journalism landscape.
Emerson’s media investments are also distinguished by their underlying motivation. In recent years, virtually all of the organization’s media-funding decisions—with the possible exception of some of the Hollywood partnerships—have started from a recognition that American media, and in particular American journalism, is in the grips of an industry-wide market failure.
My take: Did the Steve and Laurene talk about this before he died?