I’m a huge admirer of Jeff Bezos, and the way in which he has managed to dodge the biggest pitfall facing the managers of public companies: rather than maximize short-term profits, he instead has concentrated — with enormous success — on building long-term value. Amazon is now worth about $140 billion, or more than 500 Washington Posts — more, indeed, than the combined valuation of every single newspaper in the world, put together.
Many of those newspapers, including the Washington Post, were once public companies, with stock-market listings and quarterly profit reports and the like; historically they had very fat margins, and as a result of those fat margins they had substantial stock-market valuations. When those margins imploded, taking the newspapers’ profits with them, the papers were left with almost no value: the Boston Globe was sold for essentially a negative sum, once pension obligations are taken into account, while the Washington Post was sold for the price of a nice Cézanne. Meanwhile, if Amazon were to start losing money for a few quarters, few people would blink an eye; the value of the company certainly wouldn’t plunge to less than a billion dollars.
On the face of it, then, the acquisition of the Washington Post by Jeff Bezos is very good news. If newspapers were ever suited to public stock-market listings, they’re not any more; private ownership, especially ownership by an individual benign billionaire, is a much better model for all concerned. Bezos is not the kind of man who worries about losing a few million dollars here or there: he has his eye on building long-term value and relevance, which is exactly how the best newspaper owners behave. After the Graham family bought the Washington Post in 1933, for instance, it took 20 years before the paper started making real money. Jeff Bezos, who has spent some $42 million building a clock designed to last 10,000 years, has exactly the amount of patience, and money, that a modern newspaper owner needs.
What Bezos lacks, I fear, is the kind of personal talent-management skills common to most great publishers. There’s a virtuous cycle to successful publishers: as you grow in size and prestige, both advertisers and readers flock to you, you start making lots of money, which in turn allows you to hire the best writers and editors and art directors, and to spend big money on fast, effective distribution. Those people, in turn, put out a first-rate product which is very difficult to compete with.
Until, of course, the internet comes along, and everything fragments into a million tiny pieces.
If Bezos were to look at the most successful large-scale publishing operations of the past few decades, he would see a lot of waste. Some publishers, like Condé Nast or the Time Inc of old, turned lavish profligacy into something of an artform; newer entrants into the scene, such as Bloomberg, are no slouches on that front either. Meanwhile, as journalists of all stripes find themselves converging on the same digital platforms, print journalists are increasingly direct peers and competitors of their TV counterparts, where money has always been much more abundant.
Online, it’s all too easy for such operations to be disrupted by lean and efficient upstarts. Bezos’s previous investment in the journalism space was in Business Insider, one such operation: the journalists there work very hard, in a no-slack, no-waste environment, putting out vastly more content per person than any print or TV operation would ever dream of. At places like the Huffington Post, or Gawker, or Business Insider, the goals are clearly articulated, and usually revolve around pageviews or unique visitors or some such metric. And while such outfits certainly can and do spend a lot of time working on projects which might not pay off in a narrow traffic sense, they generally do so consciously, deliberately, as a tactical departure from the hyper-efficient default mode.
At a large newspaper, the default mode cannot be hyper-efficient; the papers which have tried, which have modeled themselves on digital startups, have generally failed. A large and valuable franchise like the Washington Post generally improves the more slack there is in the system. If you have enough money that you can hire stars, treat them generously, and then leave them alone to do their thing, then they will ultimately reward you with first-rate (and very expensive) content. Your job, then, is to find a way to monetize that content.