Light years ago, in 1999, the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer came to town to do a profile of a young Internet wizard, Jeff Bezos, and his new online bookshop, Amazon.com.
In a bid to assure the world that he absolutely loved the kind of traditional cedar-shelved and -scented bookshop that his critics accused him of being out to kill, Bezos had the television crew follow him down to Pioneer Square, to what he described as his favorite bookstore in the world — the Elliott Bay Book Company.
Suffice it to say that not all Elliott Bay employees took the gesture as a show of support. As the cameras whirred and Bezos browsed the stacks, musing on his love of reading, some even detected a whiff of highbrow “Gladiator” in the mise-en-scene.
“Don’t they know when they’re conquered?!” could well have been the thought bubble emanating from the tycoon’s gnomish, ever-smiling head.
Flashing forward to yesterday, it was hard not to see a reprise of this theme as Bezos stepped forward to claim his latest spoil. The storied Washington Post, the newspaper that once defined American political conversation and even brought down a President, was a Graham family institution no more.
Don Graham, the honorable and hard-toiling son of Kay Graham, herself perhaps the single greatest publisher American journalism has ever known, all but admitted the family was out of gas, money and ideas to save the struggling institution. With years of losses behind them, projections of more ahead and no real strategy to turn the ship around, the family finally concluded that “what was best for the paper” was to sell it to the very man who has broken publishing’s bones.
There is an undeniable element of Bezos bathos in this deal. The Amazon.com founder is — correctly, I think — widely portrayed as having done a kind favor to the Graham family, of offering them a most generous way out.
And yet for Bezos, the whole gesture represents chump change, less than 1 percent of his estimated $25 billion net worth. So, while it’s a landmark day in journalism and newspaper history, for Bezos this all may amount to little more than a new hobby.
The mogul alluded to that very point in a statement that also pointed up the ever-westward shift of the American publishing industry. Or, more specifically, the ever-northwestward shift, straight to Seattle.
“I am happily living in ‘the other Washington,’” Bezos said, “where I have a day job that I love.”
Still, though Bezos has cast the purchase as a personal one, which will put the Post in his own portfolio and not his company’s, no one in his or her right mind thinks his newspaper takeover is truly divorced from his Grand Plan for Amazon.
So how does the Post fit into his thinking? Writing for The New Republic, Sasha Issenberg wondered whether Bezos was actually more interested in the Post’s “paperboys” than in its reporters, photographers and editors. Noting Bezos’s “overarching obsession with what logisticians have long called the ‘last-mile problem,’” Issenberg speculated that Bezos was buying a delivery network that could get a lot more than newspapers into its subscribers’ hands by dawn every morning.
Have a sudden need for a dozen eggs or a piping-hot breakfast bagel – or, hey, a new washer-dryer or flat-screen television? Add it to your Post account, and the trucks will have it there within hours.
It’s an interesting theory, and one that would fit perfectly with the approach of Bezos’s rapid-delivery AmazonFresh service. Those bright green trucks could well be the wave of the future, battling the UPS brown fleet.
The idea that you could get the consumer anything overnight was once the Holy Grail of delivery systems. More recently, Bezos has publicly said he wants to get it to you within hours. Or minutes. Or maybe Amazon’s software will get so good that it will know what you want even before you know that you want it, so that when you decide to get it, it’s already there. The man is known for thinking several steps ahead of everyone else.
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