I’ve done two free-lance pieces in the past week or so on Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, buying The Washington Post.
You can read my essay in Washingtonian Magazine, in its Capital Comment blog, about what this means for Post journalists and the city at this link here
Or just scroll down below the photo; I copy and pasted the Washingtonian piece there.Jeff Bezos’s purchase of the Washington Post is, in a sense, going way, way back to the future. Katharine Graham’s father, Eugene Meyer, didn’t know a lick about newspapers when he bought the Post at a bankruptcy auction in 1933. But he was wealthy, very wealthy. People forget that Meyer was both the Charles Schwab and Ben Bernanke of his day. He was one of the most successful Wall Street traders of the 1920s and 1930s and then, as a lifelong Republican, became head of the Federal Reserve under President Herbert Hoover and for a few months under Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Indeed, we know that wealthy entrepreneurs who made their money in some other enterprise have always bought, and started, newspapers and magazines then, as now.
Perhaps the oddest in DC was Reverend Sun Myung Moon, a South Korean evangelist who started the Washington Times in 1982 because he wanted influence in the US capital. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York launched Bloomberg.gov, an online, subscription-only publication, in 2010 because he saw a market and also wanted insider influence in Washington. Local businessman David Bradley, whom I worked with for 12 years before I went to the Post, bought National Journal in 1997 and then the Atlantic in 1999 for reasons much like why Eugene Meyer bought the Post 80 years ago: because he liked to read newspapers and magazines, had a good idea about what they meant to democracy, wanted some influence in Washington, and liked the challenge of making something that was bankrupt into a profitable, respected business.
That sounds much like Jeff Bezos, the Amazon.com founder, who stunned Washington and the media world with his August 5 purchase of Post. In his written statement to the newspaper’s employees, he stressed that he wanted to keep faith with the basic values and mission of the Post. “The values of the Post do not need changing,” Bezos wrote. “The paper’s duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners. We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes. When we do, we will own up to them quickly and completely.”
Indeed, the Washington Post is one of the few media companies that posts its values in the main lobby for all to see, and actually talks about those values in high-level meetings and in its quarterly “town hall” meetings with all employees. They are part of the culture of the institution, even if outsiders are skeptical of that.
It’s also encouraging for readers that Bezos wrote of the journalistic courage of the Graham family over the decades: “I would highlight two kinds of courage the Grahams have shown as owners that I hope to channel. The first is the courage to say wait, be sure, slow down, get another source. Real people and their reputations, livelihoods, and families are at stake. The second is the courage to say follow the story, no matter the cost.”
We’ll see if Bezos has the fortitude to stick to that.
As a business proposition, Bezos takes on a huge challenge. The decline of the Post newspaper is self-evident: fewer news and ad pages, fewer journalists, declining revenue, and declining circulation. The only bright spot has been online traffic, where the Post has done well, but online and mobile ads, although trending upward, still don’t earn much as much revenue as print ads or subscriptions. There are no easy answers right now for any journalism product. As Don Graham said on August 5, “The newspaper business continued to bring up questions to which we have no answers.”
No one can predict what Bezos will do with the Post. You can be sure that he’ll experiment and that with $25 billion in his pocket he has plenty of cash to do so. But it will be a struggle, probably like the one Eugene Meyer faced for the first 20 years of his ownership of the Post.
In her autobiography, Katharine Graham said this about her father’s tutelage of the Post:
My father “had rather naively felt that since he had been a success at business and government he could apply what he had learned to the realm of journalism. Though he didn’t understand newspapers, he thought he could turn this one around simply by investing heavily and running it better. Instead, there followed years of struggle and discouragement and investment with only minimal success. He learned some expensive lessons. The going-in price was just the beginning of the financial drain and mental strain that went on for most of the next 20 years, and there were many moments during these years of uphill battle when he had his doubts about whether he could ever succeed.”
My prediction is that Bezos, once he gets into the weeds more with the paper—as he inevitably will—is that he’ll either like it and want to master it, or throw up his hands and sell it when it proves to be a harder challenge than he imagined. But Bezos is a long-term kind of guy—it took years for Amazon.com to make a profit, and his vision for it even now involves sacrificing short-term profit for longer-term strategies. My guess is that he’ll stick it out. And that could be a turning point for the media industry—and perhaps a return to the days when newspapers were fun, vanity projects for the wealthy rather than profit machines for traders on Wall Street.
Now, what does this mean for the journalists at the Post? For the veterans—and it’s important to note it’s a much younger staff now—it will mean the loss of an intangible: the feeling of “family” that comes with working at the Post. I felt that unique culture within days of becoming ombudsman. Even though I was completely independent, I could palpably detect the familial ties—the loyalty in both directions, from the Grahams to the staff and vice versa.
Even though the Post has long been a public company, you just knew that Don Graham cared, deeply, about the paper and its people. Katharine Weymouth has been less emotional publicly about the Post than Graham. But I know from private meetings with her that she, too, felt the burden of carrying a franchise that had an unspoken contract with the journalists and with the city they covered. She had to make an awful lot of hard decisions—we can all kibitz about whether they were the right ones—but she was unafraid to make them in her own no-nonsense way.
The loss of the familial will be felt keenly at the Post. It will be like losing a longtime mooring. But the norm for the Post in the past ten years has been constant change; editors and writers there have been hardened to it. This is one more change. Stunning at first, sure, and people will feel adrift for a few months until Bezos’s intentions become clearer. But there is also palpable relief in the Post newsroom.
As a manager, it’s tough to come to work every day and have to look at another buyout, another down quarterly earnings report, another down circulation number. As a journalist, it’s tough too. Should I stay or go? they all ask themselves. Do I abandon this culture where I have done great work, or risk going to another sinking journalistic ship? It’s not a pleasant question to keep asking yourself.
At least for now, with Bezos’s deep pockets, there will be hope.