February 22, 2024
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Our view: X and News-Press owners show dangers of overstepping

IN THIS ARTICLE

Someone who made a fortune in tech overpays for a media company and brags how much better it will be under their control.

The new owner insists on being the “alpha,” picks fights with staff, fires many of them. Chaos ensues. The audience is in decline just as the media business is shifting to new platforms. Losses mount but the owner insists on promoting a personal agenda. Disaster lurks. 

You may think we are writing about Elon Musk and X, formerly Twitter. But those of us who live on the Central Coast have seen this scenario before in Wendy McCaw’s acquisition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

McCaw, who made her money in the cellular phone business, made bold promises when she bought one of California’s oldest newspapers a couple of decades ago. 

The News-Press shut down earlier this year and a bankruptcy court is sorting out what to do with the remaining assets as well as how to deal with outstanding employee lawsuits. 

It’s far too early to say whether Musk will be able to right the ship at X but tens of millions of dollars in advertising have departed the platform — and X relies far more on advertising than traditional publications for revenue.

What caught our eye about Musk and McCaw was how much the story was about them. McCaw championed saving the whales, warned her readers not to eat turkey on Thanksgiving and fired journalists who declined to follow her edicts. Through it all, the story remained about her.

Musk has incurred the ire of millions, and alienated a number of advertisers, with his antisemitic retweet. His response was to file a lawsuit against Media Matters and then fly to Israel to try to make nice with the nation’s leaders. But here again, the story is about Musk, not whatever is trending on X. Meanwhile, other media platforms are taking notice. 

To be successful, a media company has to stand for something other than the whims and preferences of its owner. Owners can have tremendous influence — the Murdochs at NewsCorp are a great example. But they can’t be the whole story.

We will see how the saga of X turns out. But it may be that Musk simply is not wired to get out of his own way.

MUNGER LEAVES BEHIND A LASTING LEGACY

The late Charlie Munger never got to build the controversial mega-dorm he envisioned for UC Santa Barbara. 

But before he died in late November at age 99, he did leave quite a legacy. He teamed up with the late Michael Towbes to build a state-of-the-art residence for scholars at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics on the campus — Towbes did the construction and Munger provided the financing. UCSB also counts Munger’s namesake grandson among its alumni; the mega-dorm was quietly replaced by a new design over the summer. 

Munger, best known as Warren Buffett’s pal and business partner, had a number of dealings in the Montecito area. But his enduring impact at UCSB will be his lasting gift to the Central Coast.