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The new press barons…and their family offices behind their deals

The original script from the film Citizen Kane with the immortalised word:
The original script from the film Citizen Kane with the immortalised word: “Rosebud!” Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images News / Getty Images

One wonders whether Rupert Murdoch, arguably the world’s most famous contemporary press baron, will utter a similar mysterious word like “Rosebud”, immortalised by Charles Foster Kane in the epic film Citizen Kane, when he’s contemplating his final days. Of course, the film has passed into iconic status and Murdoch continues to see his media empire thrive – and seems years away from a “Rosebud” moment despite being 84.

Apart from its obvious brilliance, Citizen Kane portrayed to the world for the first time the allure of press ownership among very power people, and how newspapers could be used to propel their ambitions beyond just the media. That allure looks to be just as strong today as it was when Citizen Kane was made more than 70 years ago. Indeed, as the big press barons of the last fifty-plus years begin to reach their “Rosebud” moment, new names in the world of global press ownership are emerging.

But one big difference of these emerging press barons is that they are likely to have made their money elsewhere before deciding to buy into global newspaper and magazine brands. They are also buying newspapers and magazines in their personal capacity, using family offices, or similar type businesses to make the acquisition. Family Capital looks at four of the most prominent emerging press barons and how they’re building their empires.

Agnelli family

The news this week that the Agnelli family through their investment vehicle Exor is to buy a bigger chunk of The Economist, arguably the world’s best known weekly news magazine/newspaper, has propelled Italy’s most famous family business dynasty up in the rankings of global press empires. The deal, which will see Exor controlling 43% of the magazine’s shares and in the process also becoming the single biggest shareholder means the family have gained a big voice on how The Economist is managed. Through other shareholding, the Agnellis also own Italian dailies Corriere della Sera and La Stampa.

John Elkann, the scion of Agnelli family, CEO and chairman of Exor, and the person behind the deal, has long had a fondest of the written word, journalism and newspapers. That might originate from his father Alain Elkann, who is a well known journalist and novelist in Italy. Still not yet 40 years-old, John Elkann could become an even more familiar name in the world of newspaper owners in the years ahead. After all, beyond his growing media empire he also sits on the board of News Corporation run by the Murdoch family. Is there a better family to learn from?

Jeff Bezos

The founder and CEO of Amazon, Bezos also owns the Washington Post, which he bought through his private investment office Nash Holdings for $250 million in cash in 2013. Bezos is also an investor in Business Insider, the increasingly influential tech and business news website. Asked why he bought the Post, one of America’s oldest newspapers, he said: “I didn’t know anything about the newspaper business, but I did know something about the Internet. That, combined with the financial runway that I can provide, is the reason why I bought The Post.” The tech billionaire has also said he wants to take the Post more global. Could other acquisitions in the world of print media be imminent?

Bernard Arnault

Arnault is best known for his big holdings in the luxury products market through the Paris-based holding group LVMH, but in recent years he’s also built a considerable press empire. In 2007, he acquired France’s leading business daily Les Échos. Arnault is also in the process of buying “Le Parisien”, a daily newspaper and website popular in France. With this acquisition, the purveyor of luxury has become a powerful force in French newspaper publishing, competing with other big-named owners like Serge Dassault, the owner of Le Figaro, and Xavier Niel, the biggest shareholder in Le Monde. Arnault has used his family’s holding company Groupe Arnault to buy these publications.

Lebedev family

Alexander and his son Evgeny has been quietly creating a press empire since Alexander bought into the investigative Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta after it was set up by Mikhail Gorbachev, the former leader of the Soviet Union, in 1990. But this was extended significantly in 2009, when Alexander bought the London daily newspaper the Evening Standard and the following year acquired the Independent newspaper group. His son Evgeny runs the UK newspaper business. Despite the Lebedevs enthusiasm towards the print media, it would appear their ownership of newspapers might have peaked. Alexander has since pulled out of further funding Novaya Gazeta and Evgeny has hinted that the Lebedevs might want to sell their newspapers in the UK.

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