The Web is still reeling from the news that The Washington Post is being sold to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos for $250 million.
Within minutes of the announcement, Twitter feeds lit up with the inevitable jokes about Bezos’ ubiquitous online retail company:
Jeff Bezos buys Washington Post. News to be delivered within 3-5 days.— Albert Brooks (@AlbertBrooks) August 5, 2013
New York Magazine aggregated responses from stunned Washington Post staff, while the Post itself published letters from Bezos to his new employees, and from publisher Katharine Weymouth to the paper’s readers.
“This is a day that my family and I never expected to come,” wrote Weymouth. She wasn’t the only one. The Atlantic’s James Fallows was as shocked as everyone else:
this is a moment that genuinely surprised me. I think I’ll remember where I was when I first heard the news — via Twitter! — and I am sure it will be one of those episode-that-encapsulates-an-era occurrences. Newsweek’s demise, a long time coming, was a minor temblor by comparison; this is a genuine earthquake.
The Graham family has owned the Post for 80 years—shepherding it through the Watergate and Pentagon Papers scandals—and Fallows was understandably wistful about the end of an era. Yet he also looked forward to a new age of investment in America’s ailing media infrastructure: “We hope it marks a beginning, because we know it marks an end.”
As part of the Washington Post Company, Slate rushed to assure readers that Bezos was buying the Post, not the Company, before musing on how he might run the paper:
It’s of course possible that his intention is to run the company with a mindset of cutbacks on the expenses side to try to milk as much profit as possible out of a business in terminal decline. But he’s famously run Amazon as a deliberately low-margin, growth-oriented firm. If he runs the newspaper in anything like that same spirit, it’ll be an excellent thing for the world, whether or not it works out as a business.
Neil Irwin, on the Post’s Wonkblog, shared the guarded optimism, and stressed that the paper needed to evolve in order to survive:
The winners in this new world of media economics, if there are any, will be those who are willing to take big financial risks, and endure the possibility that those risks won’t pay off for years, if ever. It is the kind of patience that public companies that report earnings every three months do not have.
Jeff Bezos, with an estimated $25 billion net worth, can afford to be patient, and has demonstrated it year after year in his stewardship of Amazon, which reports terrible profit numbers as it plows money into investing for the future. We at the Washington Post can only hope that has the same inclination, and entrepreneurial juice, as he becomes our boss.
Mashable’s Chris Taylor was even less reserved, calling Bezos “the best thing to happen to old-school journalism in a long time”, with “no agenda, other than making sure customers are happy with the product.” (A surprisingly glowing endorsement considering the billionaire told reporters last year that he believed print newspapers would be extinct in two decades.)
New York University professor Jay Rosen worried that the paper would no longer be as transparent as it once was:
Key thing about the transaction: it puts the Washington Post in private hands. No longer a public company; rather a Bezos joint. His, solo.— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) August 5, 2013
And digital journalist Emily Bell ruefully tweeted:
Good news for newspapers looking for an exit: they are now the 'must haves' of successful SV entrepreneurs— emily bell (@emilybell) August 5, 2013
..less good news for those who view the US national news market as a functioning part of the market economy #washingtonpost— emily bell (@emilybell) August 5, 2013
In the Guardian, she also wrote that Bezos’s decision to buy the Washington Post was “not a business deal” but “a cultural statement”:
News is not the industry that it once was, or an industry at all. It is a cultural good, the format and delivery of which needs remaking for a different set of consumer needs and capabilities.
But Bell, who is on CJR’s Board of Overseers, doesn’t think Bezos is a philanthropist and argued no one else should either—sentiments vociferously shared by Alec MacGillis at The New Republic.
News of the sale was also particularly embarrassing for The New York Times. The paper featured Katharine Weymouth in its Style section just four days ago, in an article that stressed the continuity of the Graham legacy. Neither Don Graham, the Washington Post Company’s CEO, “nor Ms. Weymouth gave any hint that the company was about to be sold, ” said reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg in an email.
The Wall Street Journal sold six years ago for $5 billion; the WaPo is selling for 1/20th of that. That’s the direction the newspaper business is headed. It is becoming a boutique business for extremely rich people—a way for them to luxuriate in the prestige, and cultural respect, and political influence that newspapers still command, to some extent.
And in case we were in danger of being of being overwhelmed by ornate elegies, Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole tweeted a more trenchant summation of yesterday’s events:
Capitalist Buys Thing.— Teju Cole (@tejucole) August 5, 2013