Benevolent Haze

With the Emerson Collective, Laurene Powell Jobs is becoming a force in American media. What is she trying to achieve?

It was an old dream. In 1854, just after the peak of the gold rush, Ferdinand Ewer started a magazine, The Pioneer, with the claim that “no attempt has heretofore been made to establish in California a periodical of a purely literary character.” In 1856, J.M. Hutchings founded California Magazine “to give utterance to the inner life and experience” of the state’s recent settlers, “in their aspirations, hopes, disappointments and successes—the lights and shadows of daily life.” And in 1880, Frederick M. Somers promised readers that his new outlet, The Californian, would be “thoroughly Western in character, local to this coast in its flavor.” Nearly a century and a half later, Douglas McGray announced his ambitions for California Sunday, a San Francisco–based monthly, in similar terms. “If I fly to New York for work, when I come home and get off the plane, California looks different,” McGray said in an interview as the first issue was making its debut. “The quality of light is different.” The magazine, he said, was meant to appeal to the sensibilities of a sophisticated national audience, the sort accustomed to reading New York or The New Yorker or the New York Times Magazine, while remaining “palpably Californian” in subject and style.

California Sunday had grown out of another project, a thrillingly eccentric onstage production called Pop Up, which billed itself as “the world’s first live magazine.” Pop Up started on a lark, in 2009, in front of some three hundred and fifty people at the Brava Theater in San Francisco, and it quickly became a minor sensation. A narrated show incorporating film, photography, animation, and music, Pop Up was structured to resemble a print magazine, with short pieces near the start and longer features toward the end. In 2013, McGray and a partner, a former Digg executive named Chas Edwards, established Pop Up as a for-profit company. An angel round of $3.5 million allowed them to expand the live shows and to implement an ingenious distribution scheme for California Sunday: they paid three newspapers—the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Sacramento Bee—to distribute the magazine, providing a circulation of more than three hundred thousand from the very start.

In early 2015, just three months after the first issue was released, California Sunday received a National Magazine Award nomination, for design. Later that year, Pop Up undertook a national tour, traveling to Portland, Seattle, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Brooklyn. From the outside, the young company appeared to be in an enviable position. Pop Up was getting rave reviews across the country, and California Sunday was attracting wide notice for its gorgeous art direction and densely reported features on everything from Orthodox Jews in Colombia to California’s doughnut king. In one of the worst stretches of one of the worst decades for American media—an era that had reduced once-formidable publications to smoking husks of sponcon and clickbait—McGray and Edwards had somehow spun a quirky San Francisco stage show into a literary-journalistic concern that everyone, everywhere, was rooting for.

But what McGray and Edwards had in inspiration and quality, they lacked in reliable revenue. By early 2016, they had already cut back to six issues a year—reportedly for editorial reasons—and around the same time, they decided they could no longer justify the cost of California Sunday’s managing editor. The money eventually got scarce enough that they had to renege on a job offer to a potential employee. Hard up, McGray and Edwards opened another round of funding. One of the investors they solicited was a Palo Alto–based firm called the Emerson Collective, which had invested in Pop Up’s angel round.

Emerson likes to describe itself as a “social-impact organization,” but since that phrase could plausibly characterize anything from a lemonade stand to a cluster-munitions manufacturer, it is perhaps more helpful to think of it as the organization that Laurene Powell Jobs uses to spend and invest the multibillion-dollar fortune she inherited from her husband—Steve Jobs, the cofounder of Apple Computer, who died in 2011. According to a person familiar with the meeting, McGray and Edwards visited Palo Alto to present their plans to Powell Jobs and her staff. The pair hoped Emerson and other investors would contribute a total of three or four million dollars. (McGray and Edwards declined to be interviewed for this story.) At the meeting, the Emerson staff grilled McGray and Edwards on their editorial and business strategies. After a long while, Powell Jobs looked down the table and expressed a concern: she told the two partners that they weren’t asking for enough money. Shortly thereafter, Emerson decided to invest ten million dollars.

That extraordinary cash infusion—which gave Emerson a 49 percent equity stake and left McGray and Edwards in control of the company—had an immediate effect. Among other things, it allowed Pop Up to hire more producers and sales staff and to double the size of the art department. The money also gave the company a chance to build out its national tours, its so-called Special Projects (private shows contracted by companies like Alphabet), and its in-house advertising agency. And, as it turned out, the investment was not the end of Powell Jobs’s involvement. In 2018, she bought out all other investors and made Pop Up Magazine Productions a wholly owned subsidiary of the Emerson Collective.

It all sounds like a fairy tale, or at any rate the sort of fairy tale that might appeal to an overworked, underpaid, creatively stifled member of the media underclass. In a period when many of the most innovative for-profit media ventures were being forced to choose between equally unappealing options—get acquired by a corporate behemoth and give up whatever made you distinctive in the first place, or take VC money and spend the rest of your career chasing impossible profit margins—McGray and Edwards appeared to have found an elusive third way. They had started a beguilingly idiosyncratic company, staffed it with smart and interesting people making smart and interesting cultural products, and sold the whole thing to a woman who not only liked what they were doing but also happened to be the twentieth-wealthiest person on the planet. But it wasn’t a fairy tale or a fantasy. It was all true, and would stay true, right up until it didn’t.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

 

Powell Jobs, who is fifty-seven, has often said that she named the Emerson Collective for Ralph Waldo Emerson, and particularly for his essay “Self-Reliance.” The organization started small; in the early years, it was focused primarily on advocacy work in education, climate, immigration, and gun violence prevention. Powell Jobs gave money to a handful of nonprofit newsrooms engaged with those subjects, such as Chalkbeat. She also invested in Ozy Media, a millennial news site cofounded by a friend of hers. But it was not until 2016, around the time of McGray and Edwards’s visit to Palo Alto, that Emerson started a major expansion that included, for the first time, a determined focus on media.

In the years since, Emerson’s media investments have grown quickly in scale. Through Emerson, Powell Jobs has acquired equity in a number of Hollywood production companies, including a controlling share of Anonymous Content, which helped create Mr. Robot, Spotlight, and George Clooney’s Midnight Sky. Since 2015, according to a person familiar with Emerson’s finances, she has spent roughly a quarter of a billion dollars on journalism. In July 2017, in the surest sign of Powell Jobs’s ambitions to date, Emerson bought a 70 percent stake in The Atlantic, the magazine that was cofounded by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and her for-profit media portfolio now also includes investments in Axios; The Athletic; and Pushkin Industries, the podcast company founded by Jacob Weisberg and Malcolm Gladwell. In addition, she has helped fund a slew of nonprofit news organizations—including ProPublica, the Marshall Project, Grist, the Texas Tribune, The Trace, Christianity Today, CalMatters, El Paso Matters, Climate Central, Reveal, Lawfare, and The 19th—and given money to “infrastructure” organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists; the Solutions Journalism Network; and the American Journalism Project, a relatively new foray into “venture philanthropy” that supports local news outlets such as the VTDigger, in Vermont; MLK50, in Memphis; and The Oaklandside, in California. Recently, Powell Jobs invested in a new book-publishing venture launched by Cindy Spiegel and Julie Grau, industry veterans who were founding editors of Riverhead Books.

Part of what makes these investments and grants notable is their sheer accumulation. In late 2018, Ben Horowitz, the venture capitalist, surprised Powell Jobs by referring to her as a “media mogul” in front of a crowd. “I don’t think anybody would call me a media mogul except you,” she shot back, which was accurate, on some level. Though Powell Jobs’s acquisition of The Atlantic gave her a visible perch within the hothouse of American media—early this month, she assumed the title of board chair—no one would quite compare her to Barry Diller or S.I. Newhouse Jr. Still, Horowitz’s characterization was not entirely hyperbolic. In recent years, Powell Jobs has made Emerson into a powerful, if not always obvious, tectonic force shaping the journalism landscape.

Emerson’s media investments are also distinguished by their underlying motivation. In recent years, virtually all of the organization’s media-funding decisions—with the possible exception of some of the Hollywood partnerships—have started from a recognition that American media, and in particular American journalism, is in the grips of an industry-wide market failure. As Peter Lattman, a former New York Times editor who serves as Emerson’s managing director for media, put it to me recently, “The business of journalism continues to worsen. The collapse of newspapers across the country is accelerating, and that’s because of Google and Facebook vacuuming up all the advertising.” The ensuing devastation is hardly news to journalists, or even to venture capitalists, but it is rare to see the gutting of the industry cited as a reason to put money into journalism, rather than as an excuse to pull money out. Powell Jobs, however, has come to see journalism as the sort of problem, like climate change or immigration reform, that she might use her vast fortune to address. As Lattman told me, “Journalism is a cornerstone of our democracy, and we see that it’s dying. Without sounding too melodramatic, we want to try and help save it.”

 

Before she was a would-be media savior, or a philanthropist, or Steve Jobs’s wife, Laurene Powell was a bond trader. After growing up in northern New Jersey—her father, a Marine reserve pilot, died following a midair collision when she was three—she attended the University of Pennsylvania and graduated with degrees in economics and political science. She took a job at Merrill Lynch, then moved to Goldman Sachs, where she worked as a fixed-income trading strategist under Jon Corzine, who later became a US senator and New Jersey governor.

In 1989, she met Jobs at Stanford, where she was pursuing her MBA. The story, a now-legendary B-school meet-cute, has him chatting her up before the “View from the Top” lecture she had come to watch him deliver, and then skipping a dinner he was supposed to attend so that he could take her to a favorite vegan restaurant. Within four months, they were engaged to be married. (The restaurant where they reportedly ate was on Emerson Street in Palo Alto. I’d hoped to ask Powell Jobs whether she’d hidden an allusion to that event in the name of her organization. She declined, however, to be interviewed for this piece, and a spokesperson offered no comment.)

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Powell Jobs insisted that her husband “didn’t care about the accumulation of wealth.” By most accounts he didn’t care much about the charitable distribution of wealth, either. Apple’s IPO, in 1980, had made Jobs instantly rich—at twenty-five, he was already worth more than two hundred million dollars—and when he died, at fifty-six, with a fortune that Forbes estimated at seven billion dollars, he left behind no major charitable donations in his name. In his authorized biography, Walter Isaacson wrote that Jobs was “contemptuous of people who made a display of philanthropy or thinking they could reinvent it.”

Jobs’s antagonism to public charity, as it happened, somewhat resembled the attitude expressed in Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” which complains that “all men plume themselves on the improvement of society, and no man improves.” It’s not clear what Powell Jobs took from the essay, but she has consistently demonstrated that she doesn’t share either man’s view on philanthropy. In 1997, right around the time Jobs returned to Apple after more than a decade in exile, Powell Jobs cofounded College Track, an organization designed to help disadvantaged students prepare for higher education. The program was initially focused on East Palo Alto—then as now, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Silicon Valley—and would later expand to a dozen other communities. Powell Jobs was involved in other philanthropic efforts as well. In 2004, she joined Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse, and other prominent Bay Area women in funding two Times Square billboards expressing their opposition to the Iraq War. The next year, she cochaired a three-year, twenty-million-dollar campaign to raise money for the Global Fund for Women, an organization “committed to getting money and attention where it will make the biggest difference in the fight for gender equality.”

Though official histories of the Emerson Collective say that Powell Jobs started the organization in 2004, even staff members acknowledge that its existence was largely notional until her husband’s death. (The first mention of Emerson does not appear in Nexis until 2010, and it was not registered with the State of California until 2011.) Emerson is formally organized as an LLC, which deprives Powell Jobs of tax benefits for the organization’s charitable giving but allows her to keep her philanthropic and investment activities private. As she told the Times in 2013, the arrangement also provides a certain degree of latitude. “Doing things anonymously and being nimble and flexible and responsive are all things we value on our team,” she said. (Powell Jobs also has a separate organization, now called the Waverley Street Foundation, that was organized in 2016 as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Since then, she has donated at least $1.8 billion in cash and stock to Waverley; by the end of 2018, she had given $90 million of that money to a donor-advised fund at another nonprofit, which obscures its ultimate destination. “That is the family foundation,” an Emerson spokesperson told me. “There’s not much to say about it. It exists as an entity, but there isn’t much in terms of a mission.”)

Emerson is sometimes described in the press as a “philanthropic LLC,” as though its primary purpose were to give money away. That characterization is a testament to how effectively Emerson has managed to swathe its image in a benevolent haze. You’ll almost never see it referred to as a “company”—even though that’s what it is, in both legal and practical terms. And because it is a private company, it is impossible for anyone who hasn’t seen its balance sheets to know what portion of the firm’s assets are used for charitable purposes. What is apparent is that Emerson has invested, at the very least, hundreds of millions of dollars in for-profit companies, including Boom Technology, a supersonic-jet manufacturer; Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Washington Wizards, Washington Mystics, and Washington Capitals; and Airbnb, which recently went public. Among the journalism properties in which it’s become involved, Emerson has spent vastly more on for-profit investments than it has on nonprofit donations. Since 2015, a spokesperson told me, Emerson has given roughly thirty-seven million dollars to nonprofit journalism organizations, whereas, according to Digiday, it spent nearly three times that much—a hundred and ten million—for its stake in The Atlantic alone.

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. Staff at Emerson like to say that a billionaire is not a business strategy, and Lattman told me that, when making investments in for-profit media, Emerson has a keen focus: “sustainable business models that help high-quality journalism thrive.” The outlets, in other words, are expected to make money. Not fast money or big money, necessarily—Powell Jobs has neither the short-term horizons of the public markets nor the stratospheric expectations of most VCs—but profit nonetheless.

None of this is to suggest that Powell Jobs’s world-bettering ambitions—for herself, her money, or her company—are insincere. Yet if it’s true, as Powell Jobs told the Times last year, that she believes “it’s not right for individuals to accumulate a massive amount of wealth that’s equivalent to millions and millions of other people combined,” and that should she live long enough, her vast wealth “ends with me,” she has much work ahead of her: according to Forbes, her family’s fortune now stands in excess of twenty-two billion dollars, roughly triple what it was when her husband died, a decade ago.

 

During a joint interview with Kamala Harris at the 2017 Code Conference, Powell Jobs told Kara Swisher that she set up Emerson the way she did because she was “agnostic as to the form that capital takes.” What interested her, Powell Jobs said, was “deploying capital in the most effective way to create the greatest good that we can.” A contrarian might suggest that the most effective way for a person with her wealth and policy priorities to create “the greatest good” would be to buy a majority stake in the Fox Corporation (market cap: about eighteen billion dollars) and shut down Fox News. But Powell Jobs is not a contrarian. She is the sort of person who seeks to effect change by addition, not subtraction. She sought an MBA at Stanford, she once said, because she “really wanted to understand what it was like to be an entrepreneur,” and during the early days of Emerson, the top of its website read, “Shaking up the status quo, one entrepreneur at a time.”

She is also the sort of person whose money has offered her close contact with the innermost circles of American political power. Since the late nineties, she has been a reliable Democratic Party donor, and in 2010 she persuaded her reluctant husband to take a meeting with Barack Obama. (According to Isaacson, Jobs warned Obama that he was “headed for a one-term presidency” if his administration didn’t make itself more business-friendly.) Powell Jobs was invited by Michelle Obama to the 2012 State of the Union address, and in 2013 she was described by Politico as “a regular visitor to Capitol Hill to press for immigration reform.” (“The only thing that Senate Democrats and House Republicans have in common is a good relationship with Laurene,” Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster, said at the time.) Her relationship with Harris extends well beyond the panel stage. Harris donated to the Global Fund for Women campaign in 2005, when she was a first-term district attorney of San Francisco; she called Powell Jobs a “dear friend” in her 2009 book, Smart on Crime; and since 2008 she has received more than thirty-four thousand dollars from Powell Jobs for her political campaigns. Last year, Emerson financially supported the Democracy Docket Action Fund, which fought in court to ensure that Joe Biden and Harris would take office, President Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud notwithstanding.

At the Code Conference, Powell Jobs told Swisher that her interest in media was originally driven by a desire to further her other advocacy goals. She had realized, she said, that “we could do this work forever and ever, and we could have the narrative overtaken by someone who has a lot of power, who is completely contrary to us.” It became obvious, she continued, “that if we could be part of the creation of cultural narrative, that would enhance and amplify all the work that we’re doing.” Powell Jobs did not say whether she had a particular narrative in mind, but it’s hard to imagine that the failure of immigration reform during Obama’s second term didn’t have something to do with her epiphany about the influence of news coverage. She had campaigned fervently for a legislative fix to daca, and it was against that backdrop that she made one of her earliest media investments: in 2013, Emerson commissioned The Dream Is Now, a short film about dreamers, from Davis Guggenheim, who had directed An Inconvenient Truth.

To this day, a number of Emerson’s nonprofit grants reflect a similar kind of synergy: gifts to Climate Central and Grist align with investments in efforts to curb climate change, just as donations to Documented and Migratory Notes pair with immigration reform advocacy. In 2018, Emerson announced its support for Concordia Studio, a new production company cofounded by Guggenheim. (Emerson’s involvement with Christianity Today, which might otherwise seem anomalous on the list of its media partners, can be explained in this framework: Powell Jobs sponsored some of the magazine’s reporting on immigration and refugees.)

These days, however, most of Emerson’s media investments and grants are the fruits of a conviction that journalism is not just a means to address other political concerns but is itself a problem that needs solving. Lattman told me that the organization has been particularly concerned about the loss of local and investigative news. At one point, he said, Powell Jobs considered buying a newspaper—as Patrick Soon-Shiong did with the LA Times and Jeff Bezos did with the Washington Post—but ultimately “we decided that there wasn’t a good, viable business case for investing in for-profit newspapers.” Instead, Lattman told me, Emerson has decided that the best way to address the market’s failure to support investigative and local news outlets is to invest in nonprofit journalism. “We’re just trying to figure out what model works best for the issue we’re trying to solve for,” he said. “And here, we made the decision that nonprofit was the direction that we wanted to point our resources toward.”

 

If you think that the climate crisis is one of the most pressing problems of our time, or that immigration reform is badly needed in the United States, the idea that Powell Jobs is supporting journalism outfits in order to “enhance and amplify” her advocacy work in those areas might sound benevolent or benign. But even if you hold those views—as I do—the apparent straight line from a billionaire’s policy preferences to the funding of a particular media outlet might give you pause. One person’s synergy, after all, is another’s potential conflict of interest. Sue Cross, the executive director and CEO of the Institute for Nonprofit News, told me that in her experience, the funders of nonprofit journalism tend not to overtly influence coverage of the organizations they support—“They’re not going in and saying, ‘Well, I want you to do this kind of story or cover that kind of thing.’ ” But the decline of beat reporting at traditional outlets means that funders who target certain areas (e.g., education, immigration, climate) “can influence the topics that get covered in an environment where revenue to support reporting has been drastically declining.” Cross said that while the thirty-seven million Emerson has given since 2015 was “much smaller than Knight and some of the big players,” it still counted as a “significant” amount in the nonprofit journalism sector.

Lattman told me that Emerson is “very clear that we have zero say in the editorial decisions” of the publications in which it’s invested. As might be expected, the recipients of the organization’s generosity offer no complaints. “I know how boring and pious it sounds, but honestly, they’re wonderful funders,” Carroll Bogert, the president of the Marshall Project, said. Bogert also noted, as did several other grantees, that Emerson is careful about editorial independence: “They are extremely respectful of the fact that they can’t tell us what to write, or even suggest—they never transgress.” Unlike many journalism funders, who earmark their donations for specific purposes, Emerson’s media grants tend to be unrestricted, which means the money can be used for the sorts of pedestrian expenses that don’t attract the same level of support as, say, endowed fellowships or capital campaigns for new buildings. Several nonprofit directors told me that they were grateful for the management training, fundraising coaching, board development, and legal advising that Emerson makes available, and they praised it for hosting “convenings” that allow for cross-pollination among members of the organization’s media portfolio. “It’s not just about Emerson standing us up,” Evan Smith, the CEO of the Texas Tribune, said. “It’s about all of us standing each other up, and that’s been enabled, in part, by Emerson bringing us together. That’s very valuable.”

Though Emerson refused to disclose the dates and amounts of individual contributions it has made to journalism nonprofits, or to give those nonprofits express permission to release the amounts to me themselves, it did release the rough sum of its media donations since 2015, as well as a list of all the nonprofits to which it has donated and the for-profit ventures in which it has invested. (Some nonprofits sent me the contribution amounts without seeking Emerson’s permission; others report their donors’ contributions publicly as a matter of institutional policy.) Of the contributions I have been able to identify, the largest went to ProPublica, which received $500,000 in 2016, $700,000 in 2017, and a $4.6 million three-year grant that started in 2018. For the most part, however, Emerson’s individual donations tend to fall in the low six figures: the Texas Tribune received $350,000 for each of the past two years; Chalkbeat received between $200,000 and $300,000 for each of the past three; and The 19th, a relatively new outlet, received $100,000 last year. According to Amy Low, who supervises many of Emerson’s nonprofit journalism grants, the size of the grants reflects a conviction that the organization’s money is best used as a magnet to attract wider support. “We’re trying to show the possibilities with grantees who, I would argue, are best in class,” Low told me. “What we want more than anything is for others to come and have a seat at the table.”

 

Though Emerson generally shies away from being a solo or dominant funder, the same cannot be said in the case of The Atlantic, which in many ways has become the flagship of Emerson’s proliferating media empire. Until 2017, The Atlantic was owned entirely by David Bradley, the founder of two successful consulting companies. Over eighteen years, Bradley transformed the magazine from a cerebral Boston-based publication into a general-interest juggernaut, complete with lucrative live events and in-house advertising divisions, headquartered at the Watergate complex, in Washington. (The magazine recently announced it will move to a new building by 2022.) Under Bradley, The Atlantic found its most notable journalistic success on the Web—which, among other things, provided a launchpad for Ta-Nehisi Coates’s stratospheric career—while the print magazine attended to the aspirations and anxieties of an elite professional class that took “thought leader” as a term of endearment.

When Powell Jobs acquired the magazine, she described her interest in high-minded terms. She wanted, she said, to be a “steward” of a publication “whose mission was to bring about equality for all people; to illuminate and defend the American idea; to celebrate American culture and literature; and to cover our marvelous, and sometimes messy, democratic experiment.” Jeffrey Goldberg, who has edited The Atlantic since 2016, told me that he didn’t know Powell Jobs before Bradley approached her about a potential sale. She struck him, he said, as a woman of noble intent. “In my early meetings with her, what probably gave me the most comfort was that she deeply and intuitively felt that anticipatory burden of responsibility,” Goldberg said. “She understood that she wasn’t just buying some media property. The magazine that published Ralph Waldo Emerson and Frederick Douglass has to be treated carefully. Its purpose is greater than the turning of a profit.”

For the past four years, Goldberg has made The Atlantic a home for the broadly centrist opposition to Donald Trump that we might now, in retrospect, call the Joe Biden coalition. Its government-in-exile feel was heightened by the special effort the magazine made to publish center-right Never Trumpers like David Frum, Peter Wehner, and Benjamin Wittes, whose Lawfare blog is also supported by Emerson. Last September, Goldberg published a potentially election-altering scoop quoting sources who said Trump called members of the military “losers” and “suckers.” As could have been predicted, the story occasioned a series of presidential tweets. One targeted Powell Jobs: “Steve Jobs would not be happy that his wife is wasting money he left her on a failing Radical Left Magazine that is run by a con man (Goldberg) and spews FAKE NEWS & HATE.” I asked Goldberg about Powell Jobs’s reaction to the attack. “Put it this way,” he said. “A lot of my friends called and said, ‘How is she doing in this vortex?’ And my response is, ‘Thank God, she is solid as a rock.’ ”

But if the Trump presidency constituted one sort of challenge for Powell Jobs, it also helped obviate any question about conflicts of interest—so wide was the range of opposition arrayed against his administration that Emerson’s specific political priorities didn’t stand out. The relative congeniality of the Biden era may present a different sort of difficulty. The implicit sympathies between The Atlantic and the incoming administration were put on view in December, when the magazine published a piece by Biden touting his selection of Lloyd Austin, a retired general, as his nominee for secretary of defense. The article was remarkable for little except its byline and how narrowly its argument was tailored to the concerns of the national-security crowd that has lately clogged The Atlantic’s roster of contributors.

Goldberg told me that he is in regular contact with Powell Jobs—“We text and talk and meet,” he said—and that she often sends him notes about things she’s enjoyed reading in The Atlantic and elsewhere. Nevertheless, he said, “She is very fastidious about not involving herself in the journalism.” I asked how he thought Powell Jobs would manage the situation if, say, some bit of Atlantic reporting was greeted less than warmly by her old friend Kamala Harris. “I have no doubt that she would handle it properly,” Goldberg said. “And my definition of handling it properly is: ‘You have a complaint about The Atlantic, call the editor.’ She understands what it means to be an owner of a quality magazine in American journalism. I have zero doubt in her commitment to the principle of noninterference.”

Perhaps a greater test for The Atlantic will come if Powell Jobs is forced to choose between purpose and profit, since she has never left any doubt that she bought the magazine as a business investment. As Lattman told me, “We don’t think it would be doing anyone any favors by turning The Atlantic into a nonprofit. We believed, when we bought The Atlantic, that by pushing toward digital subscriptions we could create a profitable business and create a self-sustaining journalism company.” The magazine’s paywall, which went up in the fall of 2019, brought in nearly four hundred thousand new subscribers last year; The Atlantic aims to hit a million total subscribers by late 2022. (Last month, Emerson announced that Nick Thompson, the editor in chief of Wired and my former boss, would be joining The Atlantic as CEO; it will be his job to make sure the magazine hits that target.) But there remains an open question about what will happen if the magazine’s projections don’t pan out. The history of American media, after all, is littered with publications that were bought and abandoned by rich owners who’d been shocked to discover that profits were not, in fact, waiting right around the corner.

The Atlantic got a taste of how Powell Jobs responds to disappointment last May, when the magazine laid off sixty-eight employees, including twenty-two on the editorial side. In a memo announcing the layoffs, Bradley—who remained chair of the board until the end of 2020—blamed the cuts largely on the coronavirus pandemic, which resulted in “the overnight and near-complete undoing of in-person events and, for now, a bracing decline in advertising.” What he did not mention was that the magazine, which had been making ten million dollars a year when he sold it, had lately been losing as much as twenty million a year. Nor did he note that Powell Jobs, who along with Lattman has had an active hand in the business side of The Atlantic since Emerson’s purchase, had, according to the Wall Street Journal, pushed back the original launch date of its paywall, or that she had encouraged the publication to add around a hundred new employees to its payroll, among them high-profile (and presumably high-priced) writers like Anne Applebaum, Jemele Hill, and George Packer.

Goldberg, at least, told me that he’s not especially worried: “I think Emerson is very committed to The Atlantic as a generational proposition.” Even so, he hastened to add, “I’m very clear that we are in the for-profit wing of the Emerson Collective. There’s no ambiguity about that.” Emerson, he said, “is a great owner to have, and they represent a safe harbor in many ways, but I don’t want to be a drag on them. I don’t want to rely on the kindness of an ownership. I think we should be able to live off the revenue we make from readers who want to read us. I don’t want to be in a position where I have to go hat in hand and say, ‘Please give us a gift. I need more money for my stories.’ ”

 

An even starker example of Powell Jobs’s aversion to losing money came last August, when the Emerson Collective suddenly cut ties with Pop Up Magazine Productions. Emerson allowed the company to maintain its intellectual property and provided what a public statement described as “an additional substantial contribution.” By October, though, the financial strain of the split caused Pop Up Magazine Productions to lay off eleven employees and to shutter California Sunday.

The fallout from Emerson’s departure, and the timing of the announcement—staff didn’t hear about it until nearly two months after the fact—led to hard feelings within the company’s nascent union. In an open letter, the union acknowledged that getting dumped by Emerson had left the company “in a very difficult position” but accused McGray and Edwards of violating “legal and moral obligations.” Members followed up with a formal complaint alleging unfair labor practices. In his own open letter, McGray denied that the company had done anything illegal; eventually the union members dropped the complaint as part of their severance agreements.

On Twitter, after news broke of California Sunday’s closure, there was some speculation that the unionization drive at Pop Up and California Sunday itself had been responsible for Emerson’s decision to cut the company loose. But staffers at the company who were part of the union, and who were involved in negotiations for the severance agreement, say that they were never given any indication by management that their union drive had anything to do with Emerson’s decision. (Emerson likewise denied that unionization played a role.) A more likely culprit was the sheer scale of the company’s unprofitability, which was drastically exacerbated by the pandemic. According to a person familiar with the situation, Pop Up’s pre-covid financial projections had it losing at least three million dollars in 2020 and not breaking even for several years. When the coronavirus arrived, and put an indefinite pause on the company’s live-events business, those projections got demonstrably worse. Nevertheless, toward the end of the year, the newly independent Pop Up carried on, with a podcast and an “issue in a box.”

It’s not hard, especially in cold theory, to appreciate the difference between a nonprofit and for-profit enterprise. At the same time, it seems fair to ask the gut-level question that news like the Atlantic layoffs and the Pop Up separation inevitably prompts: 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?

I put a version of this query to a spokesperson for Powell Jobs. She declined to offer any comment except to say that Emerson had nothing to do with the decision to make layoffs at Pop Up. Lattman, too, declined to explain why Emerson thought it important to cut ties with Pop Up last year. In a similar spirit, I asked him why the layoffs at The Atlantic, where he serves as vice chair, were necessary. By nearly all accounts, and in spite of a minor scandal involving Ruth Shalit Barrett, the magazine had a tremendous 2020. The Atlantic covered the pandemic and the racial justice protests with aplomb, and though the magazine is still not profitable, its paywall appears to be a substantial success. Why not at least wait until the country was on the other side of the pandemic? Lattman said the magazine’s financial situation has improved since the layoffs, and he pointed to several recent high-profile hires from the New York Times, including Katherine Wu, Caitlin Dickerson, and Honor Jones. But he also noted that “we invested in The Atlantic as a business, and it’s being run as a business. When you’re running a business, the goal is to run a profitable company. We’ve said from the start that this wasn’t a philanthropic venture. This was an investment.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Robert P. Baird has written for The New York Times, The London Review of Books, newyorker.com, Esquire, and Harper’s.

TOP IMAGE: Darrel Frost/Getty Images