Jeff Bezos

What Jeff Bezos Can Bring to The Washington Post

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credit: bravenewtraveler / Foter / CC BY

What, exactly, does Jeff Bezos have in mind for The Washington Post? So far, he hasn't exactly offered a lot of clarity. "There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy," he wrote in a letter to the Post's employees.

I've heard some worries that he'll use it to wield political influence, even if only subtly. Others have speculated that he'll look for ways to bring profitability back to big-time newspaper journalism.

I'm not so sure I buy either theory. Bezos has, of course, made an awful lot of money. But he's repeatedly demonstrated that he's not the kind of person who is strictly out to maximize short-term profits. He's invested in not-exactly profitable projects like long-term private spaceflight and multi-million dollar mountain-side clocks designed to last 10,000 years. He even kept Amazon running at a loss for far longer than many investors thought necessary—and he continues to let the retailer slide by on razor-thin profits, and occasionally even losses, most quarters. This is not someone whose only interest is profit making.

Nor does he come across as someone who is devoutly ideological, at least in the traditional political sense. He's given some money to Republicans, and some to Democrats, and funded other politically oriented causes (including the Reason Foundation). His wife donated $2.5 million to a Washington state campaign to legalize gay marriage. But in general, politics don't seem to be what animates him.

So what does? Speaking broadly, the threads that connect various Bezos projects are: disruption, innovation, experimentation, and value creation—which, to be clear, is not necessarily the same as the creation of profits. And it's hard to think of a richer target for all of those elements than major-market newspaper journalism, which is still struggling to escape the potentially deadly gravitational pull of the industry's legacy practices and self-conception.

Bezos probably won't be bound by any of that. And so he'll be free to experiment with newsgathering and delivery mechanisms, with all sorts of presentation overhauls, and with ways to combine traditional journalism capabilities with other, newer businesses. He'll probably push for an increased, intensive customer-focus, which he seems obsessed with, and which really seems to be a driving factor in Amazon's success. His letter to Post employees even hints at this a bit, saying that "the paper's duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners."

What exactly will that mean? More emphasis on trying new things just to see what works, I suspect, and more emphasis on in-house entrepreneurialism. This could be very good for young journalists who can successfully conceive and build new products and projects. It might also lead to a more rapid transition to an all-digital product. 

My guess is that Bezos doesn't entirely know yet himself. But he's always been drawn to markets that are too set in their ways and in need of a major shaking up from the outside. And the major-metro newspaper industry definitely counts. 

Matt Welch noted the sale of the Post yesterday afternoon. Virginia Postrel wrote about Bezos shaking up the book market with Amazon all the way back in 1996

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  1. You know, I wonder if the newspaper business is going the way of private space–at least partially a vanity project for the very wealthy. It’s like yachting, but with business.

    After all, papers like the Post don’t bleed more red than he can handle, and it’s definitely a bully pulpit when he wants it to be one.

    1. But what good is a pulpit when nobody’s there to listen?

      1. Their circulation has declined, but the number of people who at least hear about something reported by the paper is still pretty large.

        I’m curious to see whether he’ll actually change anything or if this is just “buy a paper” and that’s it. Will it now come free with Prime?

        1. Meh, the number of people that get their news from the Washington Post 15 years from now will be zero.

          1. It could be, but I doubt it. They’ll continue to transform. One big miss for a lot of papers in my book is not trying harder to have the appearance of neutrality on political and other matters, in order to distinguish themselves from bloggers. Instead, they’ve gone the other way, which makes you wonder what use they serve.

        2. It’ll come free with a Kindle, digitally.

          1. Naturally. I have a Kindle and a Fire, so I’m ready for whatever digital crack Amazon wants to send my way.

      2. It’s not his style. He has had many venues from which he could have launched political statements or movements, and has never chosen to do so. As a public company answerable to a BOD, Amazon occasionally has to play in spaces like the internet tax, and these would have been great opportunities for Jeff to make a political statement, but he’s never done so. I’ve worked for him for 6 years and I still can’t really tell you what his politics are, because he keeps that very close. It was his wife that gave money to the same sex marriage cause, and he never made any public statements about it.

        Amazon’s total lobbying budget has been on the order of 1M/year. There’s no way that he’s spending 250M all the sudden to be some lobbying arm. It couldn’t possibly be cost-effective.

        I think it’s clear that he bought WaPo on his own rather than through Amazon so that he wouldn’t have to have his hands tied by being part of a public company. He is owner or part owner of many other companies, none of which have anything to do with Amazon (we have our hands full with the companies we have bought: Zappos, diapers.com, woot, kiva, etc).

    2. Isn’t that how newspapers started?

      1. It’s funny you say that, because I was thinking that a bit while I was typing. Wasn’t Citizen Kane about that very topic?

  2. Bezos is no idiot. He had an idea for Amazon, knew it would take time, and made it happen, even though it lost money for years. And it worked. I suspect he has some kind of idea for The Post. And that it is probably a long-term plan.

  3. But in general, politics don’t seem to be what animates him.

    I would expect profits to motivate him. Otherwise, Amazon would have gone the way of the dodo (or the way of pets.com)

    With that in mind, it is possible that he is planning to turn WaPo into a serious platform for hard news and hard commentary, as a way of recapturing the readership that the government’s mouthpiece had lost over the years, but I just don’t see it happening. Printed news is dead. It’s only value-added purpose, in my view, is as a coupon delivery system and birdcage lining, but little else. This goes double for any paper that dares carry Leonard Pitts’ “insighful” commentaries.

    I remember when Carlos Slim had announced that he was buying a stake in the New York Times and remember when people I used to talk to in a Mexican forum thought that his was a very smart move, because NYT made most of its money by selling many news stories to other outlets. I told them that they (and Carlos) were totally misreading the market and that the NYT was as a good investment as Pravda, especially because of the Internet. They thought I was crazy.

    1. It would be awesome if he were libertarian enough to set the Post on the government fucking watchdog path.

      1. Wouldn’t that be nice.

        1. Probably will never happen. Because “access” is more important than investigative journalism, ethics, “Fourth Estate,” etc. Kind of like what happened to ESPN when it started showing the sports it was covering.

      2. I don’t think that’s entirely impossible… Not really because he’s “libertarian” so much (though I personally guess that he leans that way), but more because I think it’s possible that that is exactly the angle that he thinks is missing from today’s news. Many, many people have clearly and loudly said that they want better *journalism*, and Jeff is the kind of guy that loves to combine a tough challenge with a clear customer painpoint and see if he can solve it.

        I’m really excited to see if he can figure out a way to recharge the investigative journalism industry. My guess is that he will move in a direction that drifts away from editorial (you can get that for free on a zillion blogs) and opinion, away from fluff pieces or stuff you can get off the AP wire, and try to generate lots of original content around investigative journalism… Looking hard at government, yes, but also industry (which are only thinly divided after all), and I think he will aim to do this as agenda-free as possible.

  4. If Jeff Bezos wants my subscription, he need only do one thing:

    FIRE E.J. DIONNE.

    1. Along with Colbert King, Eugene Robinson and Ezra Klein, you mean.

    2. If he wants my subscription he needs to make it available for the NOOK! Yeah, fat chance of that happening.

  5. My guess is that he is a bored rich guy who bought the Post as something to do and as a vanity purchase. I really don’t hold out much hope that the Post will change from being anything but a government mouthpiece. There are two reasons for this. First, the only reason people buy the Post anymore is to read self affirming leftist propaganda. Any change from that model will cause the Post to lose pretty much all of its remaining paying customers. Basically old hippies living in Chevy Chase who drive Volvos covered in bumper stickers are the only people who actually pay for the Post these days. Alienate that readership, and pretty much anything right of Matt Damon will do that, and there is no paying readership anymore. So, if Bezoes is a capitalist looking to make a buck, he will quickly figure out that being the Pravda of the Potomac is the only way to make what little money there is to be made.

    If Bezos is not interested in money and wants to publish a newspaper for fun. the culture of Washington will quickly seduce him and he will become a typical brain dead conventional leftist.

    Unless Bezos is a real, dedicated independent thinker with a huge set of balls and the desire to be really subversive, I can’t see this changing the Post in any significant way.

    1. We get the Sunday Post for the coupon section. My wife is an ardent coupon shopper, and we get way more out of it than we pay for it.

      I do admit to getting a laugh out of the Sunday Arts section, which is a non-stop barrage of stories about crappy Brooklyn experimental theater companies and little-known artists who happen to be racial minorities.

    2. By the way, I vote for “having a Washington DC megaphone” as the most likely reason Bezos bought the Post. I don’t believe for a moment that he’s going to let the old Graham gang keep up business as usual for very long.

      It might be a smart strategy. The Post still has influence inside the Beltway, even if its circulation is declining.

      1. But what is he going to use it for? Unless he really doesn’t mind what people think of him, he will quickly turn into a typical leftist.

        1. The Post will support whatever policies Bezos thinks are good for his other businesses. You know, the ones that actually make money.

          He might see it as a more broad-based form of lobbying.

          1. The Post will support whatever policies Bezos thinks are good for his other businesses.

            And that generally means big government crony capitalism.

            1. Absolutely. He’s smart enough to understand the need for influence in Washington.

    3. “Unless Bezos is a real, dedicated independent thinker with a huge set of balls and the desire to be really subversive”.

      Have you paid *any* attention to what he has done in his career? He told Wall Street to stuff their quarterly profit requirements so that he could focus on long-term investments: he famously gives any new effort 7 years to show its viability; he fought the publishers who were upset that he wasn’t charging *enough* for eBooks. He explicitly opened up Amazon.com itself to third party sellers *who undercut his own prices on his own website*. Netflix, a fierce competitor, runs on Amazon’s web services. Etc.

      If JB doesn’t have big enough balls for you, they don’t exist.

      Jeff is anything but some vane, rich playboy. He drives everything he does with “how can this be *better*”? He invented the Kindle because he asked “how can this thing we’ve been doing, reading, the same way for hundreds of years, how can it be better?”

      If he bought the Post, it’s because he sees an gaping hole for something to be better. Everyone complains about “the state of newspapers today”, but JB is the kind of guy that will rub his hands together and say “then let’s fucking fix this.”

      Disclosure: I have worked at Amazon for over 6 years (though I’ve never met Jeff). I’ve lived the culture that he creates. It’s not bullshit. Jeff doesn’t get off on “making a buck”; he gets off on delighting customers. *That’s* what his focus is going to be on with the Post.

  6. Don’t know if it’s still true, but when I last saw it about 7-8 years ago, the daily WaPo had two and a half pages of comics, including such “is this still around?” titles as Mark Trail and Mary Worth.

    1. The Sunday Comics are still pretty large. My wife gets the Sunday paper for the coupons. I only ever read the comics. It still pisses me off to give those assholes my money. But she swears we make money off the deal.

      1. You know you don’t need the paper for coupons anymore, right?

        1. My wife seems to derive a lot of enjoyment out of actually clipping and organizing the coupons. It probably wouldn’t be the same just printing them out. Besides, that would add up quickly in terms of printer ink.

  7. Regarding the reasons for buying the Post that John outlined:

    I believe there has to be a third reason, that pretty much only Bezos knows. The man’s obviously business oriented and needed the assets (whether it’s just the name or actual physical assets) to do *something*. Of course, if we were smart enough to figure out what it was, we probably wouldn’t be sitting on our asses posting comments on a story about some rich dude.

  8. What Jeff Bezos Can Bring to The Washington Post

    Free Super Saver Shipping!

      1. “Was this review helpful?”

        1. “Was this editorial helpful?”

      2. As if people read shit that doesn’t already confirm whatever bias they previously held.

        1. You know, I don’t mind being challenged in my views if the article challenging them involves a logical ordering of the facts and discloses shortcomings with whatever position is being taken. It’s the total lack of reasonably unbiased analysis and cherry-picking of facts (when not just making them up) that creates the problem.

          I do believe that most people prefer the emotional support of regular confirmation of the rightness of their beliefs, however.

  9. I can’t find it now, but I seem to recall Postrel saying Bezos offered here a job at Amazon probably about the time she quit Reason. Obviously she didn’t take him up on it.

    I wonder if she’d be interested in a role at the Post and if Bezos still wants her.

    1. Argh! Her! Offered her a job at Amazon.

    2. She should’ve taken it. She’d likely be quite wealthy now, what with options and everything.

      1. She could buy a spare kidney!

        But wouldn’t it be great if she were in control of the Post’s editorial page?

  10. Well shit, there goes my Washington Post subscription for my NOOK…

  11. He’s made himself rich. I don’t know if he can make The Post profitable, but I don’t doubt he’ll turn a profit on buying it.

    1. Too cynical. Did you read the article? He has several times taken on expensive ventures that have no chance of being “profitable”… the Danny Hillis 10,000 year clock, the dredging up of the Apollo thing from the bottom of the ocean, the whole Blue Origin rocket company… He likes to see if he can do something *better*. He likes to delight his customers. It’s a real breath of fresh air to see if he can come in and apply his laser focus to the problem of newspapers and news in general.

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