Four questions about Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' $250 million purchase of The Washington Post
As the media world reels over news that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is buying The Washington Post, there’s been talk of eras ending and bold new approaches beginning with little evidence beyond the facts of the sale.
Like everyone who values great newspapers, I certainly hope Bezos can bring the resources and entrepreneurial spirit needed to reinvigorate the newspaper. But even as the Internet mogul frees up less than 1 percent of his net worth for the Post’s $250-million price tag, a few questions linger for me, despite reading memos from Bezos and publisher Katharine Weymouth, along with a lengthy story from media writer Paul Farhi.
Why is Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post? Of all the new moguls buying newspapers these days, Bezos’ motives seem the most opaque. Warren Buffett has a long and storied old school affection for newspapers; Boston Red Sox owner John Henry is based in the city where his newly purchased Boston Globe is an agenda-setting news outlet.
But Bezos doesn’t live in Washington D.C. and his legendary business isn’t based there. He doesn’t have a history of supporting newspaper businesses or journalism, except in the broadest senses. He is, according to the Post’s story, an avid consumer of newspapers and good friend/advisor to Don Graham, the newspaper’s top executive. The assumption is that he’s buying the newspaper to help ensure it’s survival, but nothing in the Post story, Weymouth’s note or Bezos’ memo to the staff explicitly says how the sale accomplishes this.
Is he expecting a certain level of investment return? Is he primarily safeguarding the nation's journalism establishment? Is he mostly focused on creating a laboratory for new journalism? Though various experts have expressed all those hopes, it's tough to know for sure from what he's said so far.
If he isn’t going to be a hands on owner, how will Bezos help the Post innovate? The message Bezos sent Monday was perfectly calibrated to soothe nervous employees and anxious possible critics: Nothing major will change at first, and I will be a distant owner with values in synch with the Graham family. But there has also been no evidence yet that Bezos has a plan for helping the Post meet the 21st century media universe or how he will help the company develop a strategy.
The Post’s story on the sale seemed to send a contradictory message – that the changing ownership would allow them to meet the new media landscape, even though Bezos plans to live on the other side of the country, all the top managers will keep their jobs and no layoffs are anticipated.
Is this the beginning of a new era of family-run newspaper companies? As more big conglomerates leap out of the newspaper sector, the only available buyers seem to be ambitious hedge funds (Halifax Media, which owns the Sarasota Herald-Tribune among other papers; Revolution Capital Group, which owns the Tampa Tribune) and moguls with a personal connection to print.
So will folks like Bezos, Buffett and Henry set a new precedent for their families, continuing newspaper ownership and its unique responsibilities to the community through their family lines? Or is their stewardship something which might end when they do – or at least when their interest does?
Many years ago Nelson Poynter, the then-owner of the St. Petersburg Times/Tampa Bay Times, set up the Poynter Institute as a non-profit owner of his newspaper in case his relatives wavered. It may seem early days to ask what Bezos intends for that future, but the answer many determine the shape of newspaper journalism in the distant future. (The Tampa Bay Times chairman, Paul Tash, just told the Tampa Bay Business Journal that this newspaper is not for sale.)
What happens to Slate and The Root? Two important online destinations which aren’t part of the sale are online magazine Slate and African American-focused news website The Root. While both sites expect to be part of a newly-named company which can survive on its own, they won’t have the reputation or resources of the mothership to fall back on. As a fan of both sites, I hope the change doesn’t make survival tougher for either of them.