Unless you’ve been under a rock, you’ve heard that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has bought the Washington Post for a cool $250 million.
In his letter to Post employees, Bezos wrote:
The Internet is transforming almost every element of the news business: shortening news cycles, eroding long-reliable revenue sources, and enabling new kinds of competition, some of which bear little or no news-gathering costs. There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy. We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment.”
Media analysts were stunned by this announcement. But they were quick to share their thoughts on the end of the Graham family’s reign on this newspaper empire.
I’ve compiled some of the most interesting thoughts here:
Emily Bell wrote for the Guardian that the $250-million purchase was a ‘fascinating transition’, “a marriage of old media and new money.”
It is the first newspaper purchase in over a decade that has shaken American journalism out of its sleepwalk to oblivion, and made the wires hum with something other than bad news. Has this changed the narrative of inevitable decline? A seriously successful son of the new economy has dropped a small amount of pocket change on a title of international significance, but uncertain outlook. Bezos is a man who can afford $42m to spend on a giant clock built inside a mountain – which, one might speculate, is a relatively safe investment compared with a newspaper that has recorded seven consecutive years of declining income.
Nieman Lab’s Ken Doctor wrote that the news dropped down like a thunderbolt, “If not tossed down from Mt. Olympus, it is thrown from Mt. Amazon, not far from Washington’s beatific Olympic Mountains.” Doctor ponders if big-money ownership is bad for the press:
The good news: We’re going to have far less uniformity in the daily press, as we leave the chain days. The bad news: The lows will be lower.
Mathew Ingram wrote for Gigaom that the purchase was a sign mass media was shifting back to an earlier model, and “if anyone can figure out how to make that model work in a digital age, it’s probably Jeff Bezos.”
This back-to-the-future aspect of the industry actually mirrors an ongoing change in the underlying nature of the media business as well — in the sense that some believe the entire “mass media” era of newspapers, magazines and even television may have been a historical anomaly, rather than a natural state of affairs. As James Fallows notes at the Atlantic, serious journalism has never been a particularly good business, and so it has always needed to “ride along on some profitable host body.”
Not only has the way that people find and relate to media changed, but along with this has come a tectonic shift in the way advertising works: it has stopped being as much of a mass-audience game and become much more about targeting of specific groups or demographics. This latter shift is one of the core challenges that newspapers and other traditional media outlets have to face — and there is some acknowledgement of this in the letter Jeff Bezos wrote to Washington Postemployees.
The New York Times’ David Carr wrote a reflective look at the newspaper’s era under the Graham Family. Carr’s piece focuses on the family legacy and the Grahams commitment to the newspaper.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in the sale is that it happened under the watch of Donald Graham. All scions of industry do their time on the shop-room floor, but Mr. Graham had shown that he didn’t want to just inherit his enterprise, he wanted to earn it. He served in Vietnam and later joined the Washington police force to walk a beat before doing his stations in the Post newsroom and on the business side.
He was perhaps not the legend that his mother was, but to many he represented a certain kind of stubborn belief that good newspapering was its own end. In the popular imagination, journalism reached its highest and best calling during Watergate, when The Post and its determined owner, Ms. Graham, took on a sitting president.
The idea that Mr. Graham would sell the paper, whatever merits the sale might entail, seemed as unlikely as Henry V giving up the crown.
But on Monday, Mr. Graham seemed at peace with what he had done.
In the Ottawa Citizen, Rob Woodbridge wrote in an Opinion piece that the Bezos purchase illustrated that newspapers remain a trusted brand, a natural place for emerging commerce – specifically in a mobile environment.
When you put a newspaper into more than 450,000 households and places of business each weekday and 659,000 of them on Sundays, the audience is waiting. Combine this audience with an understanding of the coming mobile commerce wave, you see opportunity. This is where Bezos comes in. Amazon gets commerce. Amazon gets mobile. Amazon is about to combine the two into a mass-distributed, mobile commerce-enabled vehicle called the modern newspaper.
In addition to the Bell piece, The Guardian had at least two more pieces dedicated to the Post purchase.
In his media and modern life blog, Michael Wolff echoed Woodbridge and Ingram in writing about the Amazon boss’ reinvention of the business. “The new newspaper age began late Monday, catching the old news business quite unaware,” his post began. It continued optimistically:
The point here is the one that will be missed by most journalists writing about their business from an inevitably nostalgic view. This really isn’t an ego purchase, a rich man’s hobby, or folly. This is, at the prices to which newspaper have fallen, pure opportunism.
This is a new business. Realizing that, and understanding that they can’t possibly compete, old owners will now rush to the exit, with even less hope of getting anything than they had before. New potential owners, conscious that a historical transformation is finally in progress, and that a power shift is occurring, are going to look to stake their ground.
It all begins today. Finally.
The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade offered some thoughts on what Bezos should do with the news organization. In a post titled ‘What Jeff Bezos could, and should, do with the Washington Post,’ Greenslade said it’s impossible to believe that Bezos bought the Washington Post to turn a profit.
It’s hardly a stretch to imagine that he will set out to popularise and, most importantly, commercialise the Post’s website. DePillis quotes Mutter as suggesting that he might introduce e-commerce to every page of the Post.
He knows the value of having intimate knowledge of every Amazon customer’s desires and then “helping” them to fulfil them with the power of suggestive email recommendations. He could he do the same for the Post’s readers.
Continuing the theme of what Amazon (and Bezos) does best, such as the invention and marketing of its Kindle e-reader, it is possible to imagine (another Mutter speculation) that the Washington Post could be the default news app on every Kindle.
Whether the Post is a valuable read is another question, Greenslade wrote, stating that the news organization “has tended to live off its 1972 Watergate laurels. That isn’t to say it hasn’t published excellent journalism since.”
The New Republic felt the purchase by Bezos was definitely bad news for the Washington Post newsroom. In a blog post titled Why the Washington Post should worry, Alec MacGillis writes an attack on Bezos and Amazon in the New Republic:
There are already hopeful noises coming out of the corner of 15th and L about Bezos as owner, compared with other possibilities. He is promising independence. He is, for now, keeping the leadership team in place (let’s hope in particular that he keeps editor Marty Baron, under whose leadership the paper has been doing some notably hard-edged and influential journalism). His politics are not visibly objectionable. But let’s not kid ourselves here: The company that made him one of the richest men in the world has had a less than benign impact on our nation. It has devastated the publishing industry, from the big presses to the small booksellers. It has exacerbated the growth of the low-wage economy, to the point where the president feels the need to celebratean increase in warehouse jobs that will pay barely more than minimum wage.
Got a piece I should have included here? Let me, I’d love to add to this list.
- Biographical info on Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (sacbee.com)
- Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder, to buy Washington Post newspapers (newsday.com)
- Amazon’s Bezos buys Washington Post (bbc.co.uk)
- Jeff Bezos Buys The Washington Post For $250 Million (businessinsider.com)