Maybe Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos ponied up pocket change to buy The Washington Post because he truly wants to revitalize one of the great but struggling brands in contemporary journalism. Or maybe he wants to put one more bauble into his jewelry box simply because he can. Or maybe he just agrees with what Charles Foster Kane said in the movie: “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.”
Nobody really knows. Maybe Bezos himself doesn’t know. What we know is, he has sent a letter to the stunned Post employees, musing about a “need to invent,” a “need to experiment,” because “there will, of course, be change at The Post over the coming years.” That message could be a harbinger of future greatness; or it could portend a seismic shakeout that puts even more top-tier journalists on the street.
I have two big reservations about Bezos, and I dearly hope I’m wrong. I also suspect that many of you don’t care about this sale – because you think it’s no big deal that a four-generation newspaper family-helmed by Donald Graham has sold its cherished asset to a tech mogul; or because you’ve never read The Post with any regularity, and thus you have no emotional investment.
I’ll cop to that kind of investment. I never worked there, and I only met Graham once (at a small dinner party), but I subscribed back in the paper’s heyday. As a Washington college kid, I lifted the paper from my apartment doorstep one morning in June ’72 and learned that some odd suspects had been busted for breaking into Democratic headquarters in the Watergate building. By the mid-’70s, when I was a loyal Post consumer, it was – in this world before cable TV and the Internet – fat, rich, and powerful.
As author David Halberstam wrote in The Powers That Be, his book on ’70s media, “The Post was a world-famous newspaper. If it was not as complete and final an index of what happened in the world each day as The New York Times, it was nonetheless formidable, dominating the nation’s capital and for the first time being taken seriously in the executive reaches of New York. No serious government official dared not read it.”
A mogul’s clout
For those of us who remember those days, it has been sad to witness its digital-era struggles. Like other dead-tree news products, it has lost most of its lucrative classified ad revenue to Craigslist. And on the content side, it’s no longer the preeminent source for national political news; an online news consumer can just as easily click over to Politico (which is run by ex-Posties), or dozens of competing sites. And even though The Post has a fine site of its own, with spiritied liberal and conservative columnists, the Graham family never figured out how to monetize it in a way that would lift the company’s bottom line. (Nobody in the business has figured it out.)
So maybe Jeff Bezos can figure it out, revolutionizing the news business in the national interest – assuming that’s why he’s in the game. But is he?
The Graham family, even when its far-flung empire included TV stations and Newsweek, always considered The Post its core mission. By definition, Bezos will not. He has other priorities – first and foremost, expanding and sustaining the economic prowess of Amazon. To do that, he needs to tweak the laws in Amazon’s favor. He already had lobbying clout in Washington. Now he’ll have clout on the communication front.
To understand Bezos’ power, consider his track record as a tax-avoider. For years Amazon hasn’t compelled its customers to pay sales taxes. It’s a great deal for buyer and seller – we pay less; Amazon gets more and more customers – but it’s a bad deal for the retail competitors who have actual physical stores, it’s a bad deal for the states, which have lost billions in uncollected revenue (thus making it a bad deal for the average citizen, who needs decent state government services.)
Bezos’ lawyers and lobbyists have been relentless in their refusal to collect sales taxes; in the recent words of Jacob Weisberg at the Slate website (a Post property), Amazon has long been “a litigious bully, an instance of the modern corporation powerful enough to dictate terms to impoverished sovereign. For instance, Fortune magazine recently reported that when sovereign Texas tried to goad Amazon into forking over $668 million in unpaid sales taxes (covering a mere four years), Bezos’ team sued the state comptroller and threatened to lay off 1000 Amazon workers at its Dallas distribution center.
Clash of cultures
Bezos has reportedly decided to cede some ground on this issue – a bill requiring that Amazon and other online companies collect and pay sales taxes has passed the Senate; it now sits in the House – apparently because Amazon is financially strong enough to keep growing anyway. Next up, by all accounts, is a big push into the produce and food business. In other words, the behemoth’s monopolistic tendencies will require an even bigger presence in Washington – messaging as well as lobbying. I feel bad for whoever will be running The Post’s editorial page a few years from now.
One more thing about Bezos’ “experiment”: He hails from a corporate culture that stresses high work productivity and efficient labor costs. But he has just bought into the journalism culture, which doesn’t run that way. Speaking from experience, reporters do their best work when they’re freed from time constraints, when they can run up blind alleys before finally hitting paydirt. The best reporters are often inefficient in their labor. And unlike Bezos’ Amazon executives, who get paid largely in stock and who are thus motivated to make the stock spike, reporters don’t do what they do to make money.
Will Bezos come to share their view of The Post as a public trust? Or will he usher in a revolution that redefines the terms of engagement? That All The President’s Men movie, with its opening image of a clacking typewriter, is so 38 years ago.
Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1