Michael Bloomberg shocked many late last year when he reclaimed the reins of power at Bloomberg L.P., the $8 billion media and financial software corporation he helped create in 1981. After leaving office as mayor of Gotham in 2013, Bloomberg was widely expected to settle into a predictable pattern as full-time philanthropist; one anonymous Bloomberg confidant told New York magazine in a story published Friday that “there was talk he was going to be a combination of Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch.” But with his decision to recommit himself to his company, the media magnate is “now . . . only going to be Murdoch; he's not paying as much attention to the philanthropy.”
That’s not to suggest that the seventy-two-year-old Bloomberg, who is currently valued at about $35 billion, hasn’t filled the role of philanthropist with enthusiasm, giving away hundreds of millions of dollars to the Sierra Club, Johns Hopkins University, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and many other health, educational, governmental, and environmental organizations. During the 2014 election season Bloomberg also invested heavily in political super PACs, giving over $20 million to liberal causes like gun control, homosexual marriage, and Planned Parenthood. But after only a few months playing the role of guardian angel, Bloomberg has returned to the heights of corporate influence—and he has wasted no time in making news once again.
Thus the recent kerfuffle over whether or not the media baron has designs upon ownership of the most prestigious of New York landmarks, the New York Times. The anonymous friend quoted from in the New York magazine piece suggests purchasing the paper makes perfect sense for the ex-mayor: in order to be more-Murdoch-than-Gates, Bloomberg has to have media impact, and “to have media impact, he's gotta get something bigger. He can't just have Bloomberg [L.P.].” According to New York magazine, Bloomberg made an explicit inquiry about buying the paper to publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. near the end of his term as mayor (though Bloomberg has denied this publicly more than once). Aides close to Bloomberg, like Kevin Sheekey, have been whispering about the prospect of snatching up the paper for years. Sulzberger, for his part, is broadcasting a very clear “no,” as reported by Lloyd Grove at the Daily Beast; Grove says Sulzberger "slapped his hand on the table," telling him, “The Times is Not. For. Sale” and when Grove pressed him, Sulzberger responded, “How many kids do you have? Are either of them for sale? I just want to make sure we understand.”
As has already been reported, this is more than the coy bluster from Sulzberger. The family, which has owned the paper since the nineteenth century, is deliberate about retaining ownership through a privileged class of stock, even despite aggressive investment by 17-percent-shareholder Carlos Slim, one of the world’s richest men. The family appears more closely knit and unified than other newspaper-holding families, though, and major stakeholders would only likely be able to encourage them to sell rather than buy the paper outright.
After reporting heavy losses in late 2014 and growth of less than 1 percent since 2013, the Times may have less flexibility than the Sulzbergers would like, however. Which brings us back to Bloomberg. The Times is currently valued at about $2 billion, a fraction of Bloomberg’s overall fortune—he could easily afford to execute a sale if the opportunity presented itself. And unlike Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who has played a remarkably hands-off role after purchasing the struggling Washington Post in 2013, Bloomberg would likely take an active role in the running of the Times, especially given his already vocal commitment to a host of policy and social issues.
So Bloomberg can buy the Times and from his point of view it makes sense to buy the Times. Whether or not he will likely depends on the exigencies of the market and the fluctuations in the Times bottom line, but it has to remain a long shot in any case given the Sulzberger family’s well-noted opposition to any such sale. But at the end of the day it’s a free country: the Sulzbergers and His Honor will work it out one way or another.
The broader question is what such a sale would mean for civic life in New York City, where a politically engaged and independently wealthy ex-mayor would also play double-duty as curator of elite opinion not just in that city but across the country. Bloomberg would be able to coordinate groundswells of popular support for any of his pet projects and right-thinking Manhattanites at the apex of business and culture would become even more insulated and self-referential than ever before. New York is a city noteworthy and admirable for its bustling dynamism and confrontational public life—such a consolidation of power under a single kingpin would, perhaps subtly, ossify an already entrenched sense of liberal hegemony.
If the reports of Bloomberg’s true intentions towards the paper are to be believed, however, he must be given credit. Despite its flagging circulation and decreased revenue, the Times remains America’s newspaper of record. Bloomberg shrewdly understands that owning the Grey Lady would offer him a better bully pulpit than most any elected office without the added burden of having to govern or deal with voters. Closing in on his seventy-third birthday, Bloomberg is not much longer for politics. But if he does indeed follow the path set down by media moguls like Rupert Murdoch (currently age eighty-three), Bloomberg could wield international influence for another ten to twenty years. For a man like Bloomberg, who has already achieved nearly every measure of worldly success, victory in this little drama might make for a most appropriate swan song.