It was reported over the weekend that the UK business newspaper the Financial Times might be up for sale. Pearson, the group which owns it, was supposedly approached by the Candy brothers, the developers of London's most expensive apartment block, One Hyde Park. Their previous lack of interest in the media led some to wonder if the brothers were simply after the FT's headquarters, with an eye to turning it into luxury flats.
But an approach for the paper might not be totally odd. Another family business giant with little previous media interest, Mukesh Ambani, one of India's best known business men and the owner of Reliance Industries, is also said to have made an inquiry about buying the FT, although he has denied it.
The love affair between families and the media is back on, it seems. Just over a year ago, when Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post and put an end to 80 years of ownership by the Graham family, many people said that the era of family ownership of media firms was coming to an end, a victim of the internet which had hobbled these erstwhile cash-cows.
Further evidence came from the Ochs-Sulzberger family’s sale of the Boston Globe to asset management entrepreneur John Henry, which followed the Bancroft family’s offloading of the Wall Street Journal and the Chandlers selling the LA Times. According to Forbes, seven of the US’s 12 wealthiest families that made their fortunes in media, so far seven have completely sold those assets. The FT story suggests that just maybe the tide has turned.
But if you look outside the American media echo-chamber it is not really true that families are moving out of the media. Even in the US the Murdochs and Hearsts are going strong, as are (relatively) smaller family firms like the McGraws who sold their educational publishing division, but still own the Standard & Poors brand.
In Latin America, Venezuela’s Cisneros family controls numerous television channels across the region. Brazil’s Grupo Global, run by the Marinho family, owns a host of newspapers, websites and TV channels.
In France, the Lagardere Group, which traces its roots to 1826, when Louis Hachette bought a bookshop, claims to be the world’s biggest trade book publisher. Germany’s Bertelsmann, founded in 1835, owns RTL and Penguin Random House, among other assets. Bauer Media owns magazines, radio and television channels across Europe. All are family controlled.
Also, families still flourish at a more local level. Bonnier, a family-run Swedish firm founded in 1804, publishes medical journals in the Scandinavian and Baltic countries. Finland’s Otava, owned by the Reenpää family, has specialised in Finnish-language literature since its foundation in 1890. Its profits were a healthy €22m in 2013.
News - as we used to know it - might have been destroyed by the internet, but information is still valuable. Especially the sort of deep, niche information that takes time and patience to build, and which chimes with family firms’ slow, long-term outlook.