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.
Amazon, by contrast, is all about efficiency. It has a relatively small number of executives at its headquarters, who are paid overwhelmingly in stock; if the stock does well, they do well. It also employs, mostly indirectly, thousands of workers in warehouses around the world, picking and packaging the goods it sells; those workers are treated badly, and enjoy effectively zero slack in their working lives. What Amazon doesn’t have is paternalism, or a culture which in any way tolerates any unnecessary increase in labor costs. Its employees are cogs in the corporate machine, and they are expected to work as efficiently as possible.
The Grahams (or the Sulzbergers, or the Newhouses, or the Chandlers, or the Bancrofts) never thought of their journalists and editors that way. And the fact is that while you can achieve better profits by cutting here and maximizing there, you can never achieve long-term greatness that way. Greatness emerges mysteriously from the slack in the system, from source lunches and newsroom cross-pollination and expensive editorial whims. It emerges, ultimately, from the ability to give people time and space and money, in the certain knowledge that most of that time and space and money will end up being wasted, and embracing that waste as a good and ultimately necessary thing.
The Washington Post has not had the luxury of being able to waste time and space and money, not in many years — and as a result it is no longer a great newspaper. Maybe no newspaper can ever be great again, in that sense: the economics just don’t support it any more. But the fact is that Jeff Bezos is now an employer of journalists, and as such he is in charge of hiring and firing and paying a group of employees quite unlike any he has hired in the past. They’re not always rational, they’re not always efficient, and as a group they tend towards the skeptical and cantankerous. On top of that, they’re not entirely motivated by money.
Happy proprietors tend to like journalists — they admire what they do, and how they think. (Exhibit A: David Bradley, at Atlantic Media.) Jeff Bezos, I fear, is not going to be a happy proprietor. He’s going to keep himself occupied thousands of miles away from where his journalists will be working; he’s not going to get to know them on a personal level; he’s certainly not going to enjoy gossip-fueled lunches at the Four Seasons with Tina Brown or Arianna Huffington. If Ezra Klein is ever tempted to take Wonkblog to richer shores, or just to quit altogether to concentrate on a television career, it’s hard to imagine Bezos offering him a glass of whisky and promising to make whatever changes would be necessary to get him to stay.
To put it another way: the best proprietors are only happy when their journalists are happy. They throw resources at those journalists, and then the journalists smile, in their grumbly way, and waste a bunch of what they’ve been given, and ultimately produce wonderful content, which the proprietor can then turn around and monetize in one way or another. Bezos isn’t going to be like that, or at least I don’t think he will be. Still, I hope I’m wrong. Because if he does take an avuncular interest in whatever makes his journalists happy, then a man with his skills, and his resources, could yet turn out to be one of the most interesting and successful newspaper proprietors of all time.