Bezos Buys Washington Post: What Does It Mean?

The news that Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos was buying The Washington Post for $250 million sent Twitter into a frenzy. The combination of the announcement coming out of nowhere, the end of eight decades of family ownership of the venerable paper and the change in management at one of the last independent bastions of journalism dropped causes many jaws to hit the floor, with many of them in the paper’s own newsroom.

What’s been muted has been reaction to what this means for The Washington Post, other newspapers and journalism as an industry. Other than a plethora of puns and jokes about how Amazon.com might now recommend other items for Bezos to buy, there’s an odd void of reaction to the sale other than pure, unadulterated shock and awe.

In the coming hours and days you will probably start hearing the extremes: with one group proclaiming Bezos has arrived to save the newspaper industry, and another group decrying the death of independent journalism.

Both positions have some merit. Could Bezos save the newspaper industry? If anyone could, wouldn’t it be him? Amazon.com has almost single-handedly killed traditional bookstores and publishing, so isn’t the company’s founder the only person who could save the printed word? Say what you will about Bezos, but he has a proven business track record and streak of innovation largely unparalleled in the last quarter century.

On the other side, what does Bezos know about running a newspaper? If he’s plunked down a quarter of a billion dollars, he’ll want to make some money. So will that mean cuts in production and reporting? Will The Washington Post be relegated to an online website, trying to do battle with The Huffington Post and Politico? Will respected journalists be chased out of the building refusing to engage in corporate puffery?

I imagine the less exciting and more likely scenario is somewhere in the middle. Bezos seems unlikely to steer the newspaper on its current course. New features and approaches are bound for development, some of which will succeed and others will fail. Some big names will leave, others will be wooed by Bezos and his pocketbook. I can’t see Bezos taking the approach other newspaper publishers have taken. He seems much more likely to experiment with content and revenue than to cut costs.

The big question is what are his intentions? Does he plan to tinker with the formula of newspaper business but leave editorial untouched? That’s what many journalists want to hear, but it’s not necessarily what needs to happen. Bezos shouldn’t be afraid to tinker with content, but hopefully he’ll draw the line at tampering with editorial judgement.

That’s what journalists fear the most. Following the sale of The Boston Globe to John Henry, owner of the Boston Red Sox, and amid rumors of sales of other newspapers to owners with partisan political agendas on their radar, journalists are naturally worried Bezos will turn The Washington Post into the voice of corporate America.

In some respects, I find that concern shortsighted and oblivious to the history of journalism. Newspapers have always been about making money. Pulitzer and Hearst epitomized the profits first, journalism second mentality. The ideal of a press free from financial influence has been a fairy tale we have told ourselves for generations. In reality, it never existed. Every media outlet is influenced by their owner, the difference is merely in degrees. If Bezos could turn The Washington Post into a laboratory where newspapers are viable once again, is there any downside?

There’s always the crazy idea that Bezos may not be in this for the money. Maybe he’s in this for something bigger than him. Given the revolution in e-commerce and the digital world, Amazon.com has defied the odds. Pioneers seem to rarely succeed in the long-term. Lycos gave way to Yahoo and Google. MySpace faded as Facebook soared. Yet Amazon.com thrived. But will the site be around in 80 years? Bezos doesn’t have the money to make Amazon.com a charity in perpetuity. But eight decades and four generations from now, The Washington Post could still be in the hands of the Bezos family.