The other thing that I worry about, just on the face of it, is that he said he has a day job that he loves, that he doesn’t intend to run this hands-on. Well, of course, nobody buys something for $250 million in the heart of the nation’s capital without getting involved, so I take that with a grain of salt. But this really is something that, if he wants to transform it successfully, and to learn about how to synthesize his insights about the digital universe with the traditions of journalistic excellence and aspirations that he’s inherited, he’s going to have to put both of his hands on it, at least for a while. And I don’t know that you can do that as a kind of hobby, at least for a couple or three years. So I worry about that kind of in-between approach. We don’t really have a model of success to rely on, of someone coming from another industry into the newspaper business in these last five or 10 years and using their insights from another industry to successfully solve these problems. Off the top of my head I can’t think of an example.
The reaction to the sale (along with the sale of The Boston Globe and the Koch brothers’ interest in the LA Times) has included a fair amount of suggestion that we are entering another era of the powerful media mogul/businessman, not unlike the Pulitzer-Hearst era. Are people making too much of that?
So far I think the comparisons to Pulitzer and Hearst are very much premature. I mean, Pulitzer and Hearst were committed newspapermen. Pulitzer spent his whole life after he got out of the army as a mercenary in the Civil War as a newspaperman, and a little bit as a politician. And Hearst, too, came East with his father’s fortune at his back, as a man who knew exactly what he wanted to do, which was to dominate the world of newspaper publishing. And the insights that they acquired over their lifetimes were the insights of lifelong editors and publishers, and so that’s not quite where we are here. These buyers have deep pockets, but none of them has spent a lifetime in journalism. Jeff Bezos is 49, and he’s devoted his life to data science and its insights, the insights it offers into retailing and marketing, and now he’s turning to the newspaper industry just as he earlier turned to space tourism. He’s a very bright guy. Maybe if he throws himself at it he’ll solve this equation that devoted publishers like Don have been struggling with—and a lot of other companies by the way, including the Hearst Corporation, are struggling with. Maybe he’ll solve the equation and do everybody a service that way. But to compare him to Pulitzer or Hearst doesn’t seem quite right.