OPINION - Telegraph sale: Jeff Zucker, the thin-skinned mogul taking on Britain's media

President of CNN Worldwide Jeff Zucker (AFP via Getty Images)
President of CNN Worldwide Jeff Zucker (AFP via Getty Images)

Jeff Zucker is the last highflyer in the American media business. He may be the last person totally in love with media — a mass market showman, a publicity seeker, a man comfortable with, perhaps addicted to, the deadly politics of media organisations. He has been killed off several times and yet come back for more. He is seeking to return now from his most recent death, though in a different and somewhat puzzling role — , the new owner of the Telegraph and the Spectator magazine.

His high-flying career — he was known as much for his soaring status as the youngest, toughest guy on the block as for his accomplishments — was first killed off in 2010 shortly after Comcast bought NBC from the General Electric Company, where he had been one of the protégés of Jack Welch, GE’s chief and an icon of another business era. Zucker stormed back in 2013 as CNN’s new boss, riding the Trump bandwagon to what will likely be CNN’s last hurrah of relevance. His historical footnote will include as well that as head of NBC he greenlit the Apprentice which launched the Trump phenomenon.

Zucker getting the CNN job, after losing the NBC job, was notable for the fact that mini-moguls — men with big public jobs in the media who openly aspire to even bigger media jobs — don’t usually get a second chance after flying too near the sun. Michael Fuchs, once the head of HBO, and a favourite to run its then-parent, Time Warner, famously said that after his abrupt defenestration, he “waited for the phone to ring” with another job offer, and years later was “still waiting.”

Relevance demands that he buy something, perhaps anything, and buy it soon

In early 2022, Zucker lost the CNN job shortly before control of its parent company, Warner Media, passed from AT&T to the Discovery Network. He had strained his relationship inside of AT&T because AT&T executives were just about the most incompetent people ever to run a media company — and he let them know it — and because Zucker was confident that his relationship with CNN’s new owners at Discovery was solid. Discovery chief David Zaslov was a close friend. Alas, Zaslov was happy to have AT&T eliminate a potential rival (AT&T’s excuse: Zucker had kept secret his long-time romantic relationship, known to anyone interested in knowing, with a colleague, Allison Gollust, the company’s PR chief). Zucker became a media executive without a media company to run — quite an existential predicament.

Twenty-two years ago, when he was 35, I sat down with Zucker and wrote about him in a profile for New York magazine. He is, I said, “indisputably the most successful man in television,” and “possibly the only successful man” in an industry even then clearly heading for the ash heap. I quoted what one of his Harvard classmates had written about him: “he looms as a living infomercial for what pure will to power will score you in the modern world.”

Other than flagging his disproportionate ambition, it was really not such a hostile article. But famously thin-skinned, he mostly looked through me for the next twenty years. We live around the corner from each other in Manhattan, and in the same small town in the summers, and since he has lost his job and been stuck at home we run into each other sometimes multiple times in a day: just another reason why getting a new job for him is an urgent matter.

But nobody was calling. Without a big company eager to make room for him, what then?

Well, you have to make your own job, which means needing accommodating money. Which means the Middle East. Zucker aligned himself with an investment fund backed by the UAE. But he is not an investor. Rather, he, the star executive, is the investment. Investors want to back him.

That is, if he can come up with something for them to back him on.

Zucker has been rumored to be interested in — a measure of his desperation — Graydon Carter’s email newsletter, Air Mail

But it’s complicated. In a heavily consolidated business, like the media, there are not a lot of obvious opportunities. And, to the extent that there are assets that a big company might like to sell, you don’t necessarily want to sell them to a star executive who might get credit for being able to run them better than you can. What’s more, apparent to most (though perhaps less so to money from the Middle East), the media is a crappy business.

Jeff Zucker was left wandering the Upper East Side and the Hamptons…waiting. One among many unemployed media executives…waiting.

A few months ago, Variety reported that Zucker was out trying to buy back CNN. Even though everyone in the media world understood that there is nothing Jeff Zucker would want more than to have CNN back, he denied it all hotly. You don’t want to be seen shopping for something that is not for sale. You don’t want it spread around that you can’t get what you want.

He has been rumored to be interested in sports, gaming, and even — a measure of his desperation — Graydon Carter’s email newsletter, Air Mail. Relevance demands that he buy something, perhaps anything, and buy it soon. A manager needs something to manage; you need employees; you need to have a strategy; you need a platform — you need to be in business. Any business is better than no business.

The chief virtues of the Telegraph and the Spectator, both part of Telegraph Media being sold in a forced auction, is that they are, in fact, for sale. Rupert Murdoch wanted to buy them! (Pay no attention that he’s 92 and past thinking clearly.) The fact that this is print, a business Jeff Zucker has no familiarity with, and, a safe assumption, no interest in, and that the Telegraph and Spectator are in the UK, a market that for Jeff Zucker surely appears oddly quaint, if not embarrassing (UK media execs come to the US, not the other way around) takes a back seat to the fact that here are media brands that he might be able to actually own.

Plus, Middle East money likes British newspaper brands. Go figure.

“Brand,” rather than newspaper or magazine would be the key word here, with talk about how these brands might be exploited in the much larger US market (the Economist and FT would have been mentioned a lot). And pay no attention to the poor record of extending print brands into new digital and video lives. This acquisition will just make possible the next.

And that puts Jeff Zucker back in a game, that, even against most business logic, he still wants to play.