There must be a dozen serious, fascinating implications of the jaw-dropping news that the Graham family is selling the Washington Post to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
Here are a few quick takes, which we’ll be fleshing out in the days, months, and years ahead in the wake of a truly landmark event in newspaper history.
First, this will be the first time a major newspaper has been owned by a tech revolutionary. I’ve criticized Bezos and Amazon heavily over the years, but there’s no doubt the man is a business genius who understands the Internet as well as anyone. Newspapers have had an extraordinarily difficult time—to the extent they’ve even tried—hiring top-notch digital talent. Bezos knows the people and has the money to change that in a major way. The question is how that will affect the quality of the paper’s journalism.
Second, expect the Post’s paywall to fall quickly after Bezos takes over. Someone with $25 billion doesn’t buy the Washington Post as much for its pathetic business prospects as he does for its outsized influence. Bezos doesn’t really need the tacked-on revenue that digital circulation will provide the Post.
Third, $250 million is a fire sale for one of the great American newspapers, however diminished. The New York Times is valued by the stock market at more than $1.5 billion. The Grahams’ decision to not go national when they had the chance was an enormous failure.
Fourth, Bezos has operated Amazon on slim-to-no profit margins since it started making money. That’s a good sign for the Post since its margins are slim to none. What the paper has needed is investment. It seems likely that Bezos will provide it. In slamming the Graham family’s caretaking of the Post last year, I noted how much it had squandered on share buybacks and dividends meant to hand short-term profits to shareholders. Bezos runs Amazon in a completely opposite manner.
A corollary: Will Bezos run the Post as a business or as a philanthropy—or some hybrid of the two?
Fifth, Bezos has enormous political interests in Washington. How much will the Post’s editorial operations become a megaphone for his libertarian views and for Amazon’s business interests?
Sixth, Bezos bought the Post but skipped the digitally native Slate. I have no idea why—perhaps it wasn’t for sale—but I’d like to know.
Finally, we have now officially entered the oft-predicted Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper-industry’s collapse. Two of the best papers in the country have gone this route in the last few days: The Boston Globe and now the Post. In the coming months, the same will likely happen with the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune.
Will other Silicon Valley/Seattle billionaires follow Bezos into the journalism game? It has to be awfully tempting when you can pick up an institution like the Washington Post for chump change. And if they can figure out a business model or subsidize journalism in the absence of one, they can repair some of the massive collateral damage their businesses have unleashed on how we fund serious public-interest journalism.
The Washington Post Co.’s Self-Destructive Course. Dividends, share buybacks, and an anti-paywall stance help bleed the paper dry.
The Washington Post needs a paywall—now. A strategic error needs to be reversed, stat.
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