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Weekly reads from CJR for January 28, 2021

The media ambitions of the Emerson Collective

Last year, California Sunday—a wonderful magazine stuffed with can’t-put-it-down stories and stunning visuals—became a media casualty of COVID. Grief was followed promptly by exasperation with the owner who had cut it loose: the Emerson Collective, a combination investment firm and social-impact organization led by Laurene Powell Jobs, the world’s twentieth-wealthiest person. In his profile of the Emerson Collective, Robert P. Baird wonders, “What’s the point of having a billionaire owner—what’s the point, you might say, of having billionaires at all—if they insist on enforcing financial discipline even in the midst of a global catastrophe?”

Powell Jobs may not be widely known as a media mogul, but through the Emerson Collective, her influence on the American press has been extraordinary. Since 2015, Baird reports, she has spent about a quarter of a billion dollars on journalism. Emerson owns a controlling stake in The Atlantic; it is an investor in Axios, The Athletic, and Pushkin Industries; it has made donations to nonprofit news organizations such as ProPublica, the Marshall Project, and The Trace; and it has given money to “infrastructure” organizations including the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Solutions Journalism Network, and the American Journalism Project. As Baird considers the scope of Emerson’s media ambitions, he learns that its for-profit investments vastly outmeasure its charitable giving and that staff members like to say “a billionaire is not a business strategy.” 

“Emerson is sometimes described in the press as a ‘philanthropic LLC,’ as though its primary purpose were to give money away,” Baird writes. “That characterization is a testament to how effectively Emerson has managed to swathe its image in a benevolent haze.” In reality, “As far as its media operations are concerned, Emerson looks much more like a venture capital firm with a significant corporate-giving program than a charity with a sideline in private equity.”
––Betsy Morais, managing editor

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