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Jeff Bezos' firm hand: Steering news back to the future?

What does the man trying to kill the bookstore want with the Washington Post?
Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos.

Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos. Photo: Steve Jurvetson

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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Comments:

Posted Tue, Aug 6, 6:20 p.m. Inappropriate

Great story. I agree that the "paperboy" theory is not the thing. The Bezos Center for Innovation will open at MOHAI this fall and will look at what innovation is, where it comes from, etc. I would expect Bezos to innovate, especially since the Post's status quo is not tenable. I suspect that paper papers won't go away entirely--we still have horse cops and horse racing after all, so cars didn't take over everything. But the fully electronic daily newspaper seems inevitable. The innovation will be the financial model that delivers quality content.

Posted Tue, Aug 6, 8:21 p.m. Inappropriate

Superb story, brilliant insights! And here is hoping CC gets Sam Verhovek writing far more often. He's clearly way ahead of much of the rest of the media pack in being not-terrified of Bezos and recognizing that some Bezosian disruption may well be exactly what the mainstream media business needs. It's a joy and a delight to take in this terrific, seasoned newsman's observations about the past, present, and future of the news business. Thank you!
D. Hollis Traeger

Posted Wed, Aug 7, 7:20 a.m. Inappropriate

Bezos' purchase of the Washington Post is ultimately a good thing, if only because it keeps an important institution alive. But I can't help but notice at least one irony. Newspapers are built on the principle of transparency, at least in public affairs, and Bezos/Amazon are famous for the opacity of their purpose and operations. Despite its obligations as a public company, Amazon (and by extension, Bezos) says very little about itself. Any person who has ever tried to get an answer to a question from its PR staff knows that it's a hopeless exercise. Silence is the norm.

Furthermore, a newspaper's lifeblood is civic engagement. To be relevant, it must be out in the world talking to people and speaking its mind through its editorial pages. As the Seattle Times discovered a couple of years ago, Amazon/Bezos are among the least financially engaged of major Seattle companies, despite some high-profile gifts and Bezos' support of marijuana legalization.

Bezos' history seems incompatible with these two principles: transparency and engagement. Maybe with maturity, he's seen the error of his ways.

Posted Wed, Aug 7, 10:50 a.m. Inappropriate

Nice piece. Not even Bezos’s billions will revive that part of the news business already well into the death cycle. But of course revolution, not revival, is the point here. Bezos is perhaps the best choice to take the lead over the barricades that traditional publishers have erected around their properties as the inevitable closes in.
The decline of the news business never was about news—there is plenty of demand for that. It was always about technology underscoring the aging delivery system, well after that system had become obsolescent, as Sam’s piece points out. And no one does change technology better than Bezos. If it was just about cash in the bank Warren Buffet, himself a longtime Washington Post confidant, would have bought the place.
Buffet’s a long-range investor, not a revolutionary. He’s buying up smaller papers right-and-left these days, at a big discount. It’s an interesting strategy—wait for someone like Bezos to blow the delivery system apart while you position yourself, on the cheap, to wait out his revolution, then cash in. You have to wonder if The Seattle Times Co., still losing money according to the latest SEC filing for McClatchy, it’s 49.5% owner, and now shed of its only real remaining assets, its real estate holdings, and left with a small stable of shrinking regional and local papers, can play that game.

richards

Posted Wed, Aug 7, 10:50 a.m. Inappropriate

Crosscut never lets me down -- fawning, uncritical adulation of the moneyed elites, posing (rather poorly) as high-quality local journalism.

ivan

Posted Wed, Aug 7, 11:03 a.m. Inappropriate

given the mixing of commerce, opinion and journalism, which has made the Fox network and Fox News a profitable venture, it seems like a relatively small investment for Bezos to pick up the Washington Post. And, given the low price, why not pick up the best, instead of trying to establish a brand?

I suspect this may be something where you start with a brand, run it for a while as is, learn the ins and outs of the business, and then try new things from what you have learned elsewhere. No one knows what future form journalism will take, but given that it's been around for hundreds of years (starting in English coffee houses?), there's no reason to expect it to go away, particularly in this age of niche markets and "long tails" of aggregated customers. Think about this: one of the prime features on the Amazon site is the "customers interested in this also bought..." and the customer ratings. It doesn't seem like too big a step from applying that to books to applying that to news stories. I regularly consult the "most emailed" list of stories on the New York Times, and recently the paper added a "recommended for you" tab to that list. Seems like Bezos may take that much, much further.

Posted Thu, Aug 8, 2:47 p.m. Inappropriate

Would everyone please calm down. Bezos's purchase is blindingly simple: it's not about the future of newspapers. It's about a billionaire who needs to own a strong voice in the nation's political power center. Remember when Bill Gates and Microsoft had an image problem? The DOJ was breathing down their necks and a federal judge had ordered the company split apart? One thing Bill did with his unending PR and marketing budget was build MSNBC. And guess what, Bill G. soon began doing softball interviews on NBC. Bezos and WaPo is not much different. As SHV pointed out, the purchase money is chump change for him, but he just bought the most powerful publication in D.C. This is not strictly a business move, or about a re-engineering newspapers hobby. It's simply about power. The WaPo is just another weapon in a very rich man's quest to stay very rich.

AHoffman

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