Would-be media moguls

THE indulgences of the rich can take many forms. Expensive jewellery, luxury cars and yachts, sports teams – if it's expensive and exclusive, there's bound to be a billionaire somewhere who will buy it.

For example, this week the world's most expensive suit went on sale in Britain – a $1.06 million number made by designer Richard Jewels and jeweller Stuart Hughes. The hand-stitched cashmere, wool and silk blend two-piece apparently took 600 man hours to put together, before being embellished with 480 diamonds.

Only three have been made, and one has already been snapped up by a lucky French buyer (suit size: 41 long), so you'd better get in quick.

But I think I may have spotted a second billionaire indulgence, more prominent and certainly more powerful than an English Premier League soccer club, the most old-fashioned of status symbols: the newspaper.

Earlier this week, one of the world's most iconic broadsheets, Le Monde of France, was finally bought by a trio of bidders, that includes internet billionaire Xavier Niel, Lazard banker Matthieu Pigasse and Pierre Berge, an arts patron and the partner of the late fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent.

These are not the only wealthy non-media entrepreneurs buying into the newspaper business in the last 18 months.

In March, Russian billionaire Alexander Lebedev, bought The Independent and Independent on Sunday newspapers for the princely sum of £1, after buying the Evening Standard 12 months earlier for a "nominal sum".

Back in January 2009, the world's richest man, Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim bailed out the struggling New York Times Company with a $US250 million loan, becoming the third largest shareholder in the famous publisher.

The reason we should view these purchases as indulgences rather than really serious, money-making investments, is simple. Niel, Lebedev and Slim are shrewd businessmen known for their astute deal making, which means they would understand that there is very little real chance of getting a return on their media investments.

So why would you buy a newspaper in an age when they are likely to suffer, what Warren Buffett described as "unending losses"?

It's a difficult question to answer. While media ownership was highly profitable in the past, it has also been often seen as a great status symbol and a way for powerful business people to play a role in politics, society and even world affairs.

In some cases, wealthy entrepreneurs have even used newspapers to push their own messages and interests – the late trucking magnate Allan Scott was famous for pushing his views through the local paper he owned, Mt Gambier's Border Watch.

But do these reasons stack up in the cases of Niel, Lebedev and Slim?

As the richest man in the world, it's not like Carlos Slim needs some sort of status symbol to feel good about. Nor has he shown any real interest in getting on the company's board, which is tightly controlled by the Sulzberger family.

In fact, Slim has never really made his rationale for buying into the NYTC clear, other than to praise the company's "brand", its "national and international reach", its "potential for digital expansion" and its "world-class news and information".

Not much we can glean there. Some commentators suggest that Slim, known for being something of a turnaround specialist, may have simply spotted what he believes is an-old fashioned bargain. But if this is the case, the pay-off still looks a long way off. Since his first investment in mid-September 2008, NYTC shares are down almost 40%.

The motives of Lebedev have also been questioned – hardly surprising for a former KGB operative-turned-banker. He has owned media companies before in Russia and as a strident critic of the Russian Government he has promoted the cause of independent, investigative reporting.

"I do not treat newspapers as business. I treat them as my responsibility," he said after his takeover of The Independent.

"I think newspapers are the only instrument which, through investigative reporting, can ferret out everything about international corruption."

But it's not all altruism. Lebedev installed his 30-year-old son Evgeny as the boss of his newspaper empire and the pair have made some attempts at tweaking the newspaper business model.

The father and son team have made the Evening Standard a free giveaway paper aimed at commuters, a move which has boosted circulation and advertising revenue to the point where the paper is expected to break even in 2011. Limited giveaways have also been trialled on The Independent with some success.

"We will have to do something. The Independent can't stay in its present form because it will continue losing money," Evgeny Lebedev told The Financial Times recently.

Xavier Niel's motives in buying Le Monde are also unclear at this stage, although his colourful background has caused plenty of speculation.

Usually described as a billionaire, although he does not make an appearance on Forbes list of the world's billionaires, The Guardian says the 42-year-old Niel made his first fortune from France's earliest version of the internet, a system run by the French post office that allowed users to send electronic messages over phone lines. Like everything profitable on the internet, Niel's business was fuelled by sex – his business allowed users to send "sexual contact" chat messages to each other.

After branching out into online peep shows and sex shops, Niel then created an internet business called lliad, which offered free access to the internet. Last year he won the rights to build a fourth mobile phone service in France and he also reportedly owns the publishing rights to the old Frank Sinatra standard, My Way.

But his career has been tinged with controversy – in 2006, he was fined and given a suspended sentence for embezzlement.

Like Lebedev, Niel has been outspoken on some political issues and he does have media ownership experience, having already backed two leftwing, investigative websites in France called Bakchich and Mediapart. Also like Lebedev, Niel has talked about the "public good" of newspaper publishing.

So clearly the motives behind these newspaper purchases are complex and different in all these cases. The thrill of being excited with big brands, the status associated with owning media properties and a genuine interest in publishing all seem to play some role.

And while investment returns don't seem to be high on the agendas of Niel, Lebedev and Slim, I wonder if deep down they don't see their newspapers as presenting the ultimate business challenge – turning around businesses that appear impossible to turn around.

As Evgeny Lebedev told the FT: "If I wanted to make money, I would probably invest in property or the stock markets, not in a newspaper. To me this is a much more exciting opportunity... it's not just putting money somewhere and taking more money out."

This article first appeared on SmartCompany.com.au, Australia’s premier site for business advice, news, forums and blogs.

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