Jeff Bezos buys the Washington Post. This is either wonderful for journalism or horrifying

By Sarah Lacy , written on August 5, 2013

From The News Desk

When Jeff Bezos turns his sights on you, it's either extremely good or extremely bad. There's rarely wiggle room in between.

Book sellers, gadget retailers, and publishers aren't such fans of "take on all comers" Bezos with his fortitude to destroy the margins of multiple industries all at once.

Customers, small merchants operating shops on Amazon, and acquired companies like Zappos have at times seen Bezos as a conquering liberator, from the tyranny of shipping fees, eBay, or its investors who demanded better margins out of customer-loving Zappos respectively.

There's always uncertainty when Bezos is involved. He's ruled by no one -- not Wall Street, not logic, not his balance sheet. Only his own mind. And few people ever really know what Bezos is thinking.


So it's hard to know what to think of the news that Bezos -- destroyer of much-beloved, yet inefficient industries that involve printed words -- is buying one of the most iconic news publications in American history, the Washington Post, for $250 million. The man who loves to destroy everything old and inefficient buying a publication that's been brought to its knees by the Web.

This can't be good... Can it?

On one level, it's certainly sad. The Graham family has shepherded the Post through so many ups and downs, absorbing losses for many years, before the glory years of Watergate. Katherine Graham was one of the great media moguls in American history and one of the most iconic female CEOs of the last century. She was succeeded by her son Don Graham and his niece Katherine Weymouth, who have both also been praised for their business and editorial savvy, even as the paper has struggled.

Don Graham, as we've written before, is one of the more astute old media figures when it comes to the Web. He was one of the first mentors to a young Mark Zuckerberg, and now serves on Facebook's board.

I recently read Katherine Graham's autobiography. That the company is leaving her family's control represents an end to an era of journalism, when the public good was held up over double-digit increases in revenue.

But of course, Bezos isn't to blame for that, nor is Google, Craigslist, or any of the other Internet bogey-men. The world just changed. The fact that franchises like the Washington Post and the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal stayed on top for more than a century are amazing feats. It was impossible to think they could do it forever, especially against a landscape where consumption, reach, and cost of information has changed so dramatically and so rapidly.

It's been clear for a while the Post has a huge newsroom which its digital revenues simply can't support. There just weren't any clear answers. The paper was frequently compared to Boston Globe -- a hybrid between a nationally important and regionally important franchise, that would be challenged to have the same impact it once did with a paywall. And tellingly, The Globe just got sold as well.

So what will Bezos do with the Post? The fact that it just invested in BusinessInsider, and Bezos's recent comments to Bloomberg BusinessWeek about preferring news that is "short and well written," are certainly worrying data points for journalism purists. There are few publications that seem such opposites.

But there are a few reasons to take him at his word, when he says he has a day job already and that, “I understand the critical role the Post plays in Washington, DC and our nation, and the Post’s values will not change. Our duty to readers will continue to be the heart of the Post, and I am very optimistic about the future.”

There are a few reasons I think this could be exciting, rather than tragic.

1. Graham's heirs still care deeply about this franchise. This is not a situation where a newspaper titan's heirs have other missions in life and just want a payout. And despite how stressful retrofitting the Post for a digital era has been, the family still deeply cares about its history and legacy. I don't believe Don Graham would have made this deal, if he thought the Post was going to be gutted and turned into a shadow of itself. To wit: Weymouth will be continuing in her role, along with Stephen P. Hills, President and General Manager; Martin Baron, Executive Editor; and Fred Hiatt, Editor of the Editorial Page, according to the company.

2. Bezos is typically a man of his word when it comes to acquisitions. He promised to leave Zappos alone, and he has. He's even indulged Tony Hsieh's grand, ambitious, and controversial plans to make Zappos the centerpiece of a Downtown Vegas revitalization. You could argue he hasn't done enough to integrate some of the assets he's purchased, like IMDb. He said in a memo to staff that he "has a day job" and won't be running the Post, and that the staff knows more about the media than he does. He may be a benevolent new patron. That would certainly be the best case scenario for the Post in the short-term.

3. The smartest CEO in tech right now might actually have a plan. While simply leaving the Post to its own devices could be great in the short term, it wouldn't solve the underlying problems for the Post and so much of old media generally. The Post's newsroom and costs are simply too big to support its revenues -- with or without a more extensive paywall. Is it possible Bezos has a plan to make this a sustainable franchise again without turning it into a realm of slideshows? Bezos's plans for other industries have mostly been great for consumers and bad for existing industries. A plan, if he has one, could be as frightening to journalism purists as the long slow degradation of the Forbes brand.

4. There are few people who think longer-term than Bezos. If he has a plan, it won't be a quick fix or a Band-Aid. And long term thinking is a luxury the Post didn't have before this deal.

In thinking through this news, I reached out to a few people who've worked closely with Bezos in the past. Many are flummoxed. Here's what Amazon investor John Doerr had to say about him at our May PandoMonthly. He described an entrepreneur with uncommon focus and discipline around what the customer wants. I guess the future of the Post will ride on who Bezos sees as "the customer" and what's in his best interest.

As a side note, I'm interested to see what the very Valley-connected Don Graham does next. I assume he will stay chairman of the Washington Post Company, which is retaining some key digital assets like Slate, Root, and Foreign Policy. I've reached out to him for comment.

For his part, Bezos summed up how many in tech feel about Graham in his letter to the Post's employees when he said: "I want to say one last thing that's really not about the paper or this change in ownership. I have had the great pleasure of getting to know Don very well over the last ten plus years. I do not know a finer man."