With his purchase of the Washington Post, Jeff Bezos is in pursuit of much more–and less–than a quick return on investment.
As they scrambled yesterday to explain why Jeff Bezos would buy The Washington Post for $ 250 million, journalists’ first reactions were hopeful. This almost never happens with journalists. New York Times reporter Christine Haughney quoted Alan Mutter, a consultant who writes the blog Reflections of a Newsosaur, who regards the deal as the best thing that could have happened to the Post, if not the entire news industry. The purchase, he writes, “finally puts a true digital native at the helm of a newspaper company.” Over at Time.com, Roona Faroohar chimed in that Bezos was not “just another rich guy buying a newspaper.” Instead, she pointed out, he is “one of the visionary technology business leaders of our age.”
It’s easy to see why journalists should invest such hope in Bezos. The man who created e-commerce is a creative juggernaut who rolls from one business victory to another. Any journalist–this writer included–would love to have him wave a digital wand over print publishing and return the industry to the monopoly profits the printing press once conferred.
But let’s face it: There is no such wand. Other entrepreneurs from outside publishing have bought legendary news organizations, and the results so far have been less than transformational. Michael Bloomberg and the Canadian Thomson family, both of whom built fortunes in financial data, bought BusinessWeek and Reuters, respectively. Audio hardware entrepreneur Sidney Harmon bought Newsweek (from the Washington Post, in fact), and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes bought The New Republic. In most cases the influx of cash and energy made for better and more digitally savvy publications. But news remains a tough, tough business. Professional news gathering of the kind the Post practices is expensive, and it is getting increasingly tough to convince either advertisers or readers to cover the costs.
Bezos is certainly aware of those headwinds–he himself noted the consumer resistance to paying for news in an interview. And while many commentators noted that $ 250 million is only 1% of Bezos’ estimated net worth–well, $ 250 million buys you a lot of social media startups with much more promising growth outlooks. It’s probably no accident that Bezos bought the paper under his own aegis, thus avoiding having to convince his board or Wall Street that buying an old-media property that lost $ 53 million last year would be a good deal for Amazon’s shareholders.
So, presumably Bezos has something other than a quick return on investment in mind. In fact, that’s exactly the impression you get from reading his letter to the Post’s employees and the terms of the deal. “Journalism plays a critical role in a free society, and The Washington Post–as the hometown paper of the capital city of the United States–is especially important,” his letter read. “The values of The Post do not need changing. The paper’s duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners.” Those are not indications of a man bent on tearing the old system out by its roots. Nor are the terms in the deal’s term sheet, which guarantee Post employees their current salaries, benefits and employment for at least a year.
So what does Jeff want? I asked Barry Schuler, the former CEO of the entity once known as AOL Time Warner–and as such, a man who knows something about mergers between tech entrepreneurs and old media. Schuler pointed out that for a very reasonable price–“Less than a quarter of what Yahoo paid for Tumblr, which is crazy”–Bezos owns one of the most respected and influential voices in the most powerful city on earth. Media has an appeal that has lured many non-media moguls over the years–not just the current crop of rich guys from Silicon Valley but also, historically, the chemical baron Eugene Meyer, patriarch of the family that sold the Post to Bezos.
Bezos, then, fits into a tradition. Prime media properties have a way of finding their way into the possession of successful entrepreneurs–as do yachts, trophy companies, and Caribbean islands. And no one can deny that entrepreneurs such as Bezos have earned the privilege. We in journalism hope that the “rich guys” buying media properties regard their purchases as more of a public trust than, say, they might regard a nice yacht. At least for now, the 49-year old Bezos seems to justify that hope. For anyone who cares about serious journalism, that’s way better than a digital wand.