Emerson Collective, a little-known but big-money group funded by Laurene Powell Jobs’s Apple fortune, took its biggest step into the scrutinizing national spotlight Friday by agreeing to acquire a majority stake in Washington-based Atlantic magazine.
The deal comes after Atlantic Media owner David Bradley spent a year searching for a buyer for the influential print and online journal that sits at the heart of his news empire. Bradley, in a staff memo announcing the deal, said he narrowed down the candidates and, “From the first, Laurene Powell Jobs sat atop the list.”
Now, Powell Jobs joins the list of people using fortunes minted in technology to change the media landscape. Those undertakings include eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s investment in the Intercept; the Mercer family’s financial support of Breitbart; Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes’s ill-fated acquisition of the New Republic; and Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos’s purchase of The Washington Post.
The Atlantic agreement is not Emerson Collective’s first news media venture, but it is its most high-profile. The organization is taking control of a 160-year-old publication respected for its writing on ideas and politics. Emerson also has contributed to online news sites Axios and ProPublica.
Emerson Collective, which declined to comment beyond issuing a news release, also tends to avoid publicity. Most of its grant-making is done on the condition that it remain anonymous. Powell Jobs, 53, with a net worth estimated at more than $11 billion, is the widow of Apple co-founder of Steve Jobs.
Here, too, Emerson Collective is blazing a path increasingly popular in Silicon Valley by disbursing its money through a private limited liability company — or LLC — instead of a foundation or philanthropy. This structure allows for both for-profit investments and traditional charitable activities. It also comes without many of the nonprofit world’s restrictions on political or issue advocacy. Other groups arranged in this manner include the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, created by Facebook co-founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.
“These are hybrids in many ways,” said Amir Pasic, dean of Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
The arrangement gives the billionaires who use it more control over how their money is used as they pursue public-minded goals. They can deploy funds in start-ups that are seeking to make a profit, for example.
But less is known about how these companies spend their money, because fewer public disclosures are required. That could lead to calls for greater transparency, Pasic said.
“The more they play in the realm of public policy, the more people might talk about the outsize role of billionaires in affecting public policy,” he said.
Emerson Collective, based in Palo Alto, Calif., and named in honor of Ralph Waldo Emerson, was created in 2011. Its goal is “removing barriers to opportunity so people can live to their full potential.” Many of its efforts have been focused on education and immigration reform. In 2016, it awarded 10 grants worth $10 million each for efforts to rethink U.S. high schools. It also has invested in the education start-ups Udacity and AltSchool, both of which aim to remake the school experience.
Last week, Emerson Collective participated in a $40 million fundraising round for virtual-reality start-up Within. This year, it invested in the government accountability site OpenGov and also Neighborly, a start-up that aims to increase funding for public projects such as parks.
This year at the tech-focused Code Conference, Powell Jobs recalled visiting President Trump in a bid to persuade him to not deport those brought into the country illegally as children, a group commonly known as “dreamers.”
She also hinted at her philanthropic thinking, saying, “I’m personally interested in deploying capital in the most effective way to create the greatest good that we can.”
Powell Jobs then was asked whether she would be interested in buying the New York Times. She did not answer directly, saying only that the Times was “a national treasure that should be preserved.”
Emerson Collective is buying the Atlantic’s operations, but Bradley is keeping related media businesses such as the online news site Quartz. The deal also calls for Bradley to retain a minority stake in the Atlantic, with the expectation that Emerson will complete a full purchase in a few years. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
Leadership at the Atlantic will remain unchanged, according to an announcement by the company.
The Atlantic magazine is part of Atlantic Media, an amalgam of news publications and businesses employing 730 people. The overall venture has about $135 million of revenue annually.
Atlantic Media has endured a rough road, largely because of the digital revolution. Bradley has said he has lost more than $100 million over the past decade. In 2015, he closed the print version of National Journal after years of struggling to turn a profit. It continues to operate as an online entity.
Bradley, 64, made his fortune by founding two companies, the Advisory Board and Corporate Executive Board, which he took public and sold. The sales gave him hundreds of millions of dollars to pursue his journalism interests.
Bradley and his wife, Katherine Bradley, are a big presence in Washington. They are also investors in Axios, the news company started by Washington journalists Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei.
Bradley foreshadowed changes in his media business, which is based at the Watergate complex near Foggy Bottom, in an interview with The Washington Post this year.
“I want to find somebody who will love it as much as I’ve loved it,” he said in the interview.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Emerson Collective’s contributions to ProPublica.