Correction appended: Aug. 6, 2013
There have been many reasons to dislike Amazon over the past few years, from the company’s efforts to avoid paying sales tax, to the way in which it sucks the life out of nearly every business niche it enters, forcing retailers of books and vacuum cleaners alike to engage in a profit-cutting race to the bottom. But hey, that’s business. Yesterday’s announcement that Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos would buy the Washington Post for the bargain price of $250 million is actually reason to cheer, since it may mean that better days are ahead, both journalistically and economically, for the paper. Here’s why:
1. Bezos isn’t just another rich guy buying a paper, like sports mogul John Henry, who recently purchased the Boston Globe for $70 million, or (God forbid) corporate raider Sam Zell, who raped and pillaged the Los Angeles Times. He’s several intellectual notches above even someone like Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, who bought the New Republic. This is someone that many industry watchers consider to be the most visionary technology business leader of our age, perhaps second only to Steve Jobs. And as one optimistic Washington Post editor (and many of the staff do seem optimistic about the deal) told me, “We are desperate to find a technological leap forward.”
2. His vision includes long-form media. The Kindle pioneered the distribution of it digitally; Amazon was ahead of even Apple in terms of understanding how to get people voraciously reading and consuming serious, lengthy media in tablet format. Indeed, Amazon has been a creator of it, not only via its recent foray into publishing, but at a broader level in the form of things like its very popular, colorful online product reviews. “You could argue that Amazon was one of the original crowdsourcing business models,” says David Kirkpatrick, the founder of Techonomy Media and author of The Facebook Effect. And crowdsourcing is certainly profoundly altering the way news gathering is done. Having a guy who understands all that at the helm can only be a good thing.
3. Sure, he’s got an agenda around things like tax policy, privacy and intellectual property. But so do all owners — under the Grahams, the Washington Post’s editorial page supported any number of dubious things from the invasion of Iraq to the rollback of financial aid at private colleges. Bezos holds a stake in the popular business publication Business Insider and doesn’t appear to have messed with the tone or content of its coverage. If he did that at the Washington Post, it would be a disaster. But on the upside, his position as a powerful, tech-savvy outsider in an insular, and sometimes positively Luddite, city could be a good thing for the Post’s coverage of the nation’s capital.
4. He gets global business. The Post is a paper that has always had global aspirations (it has the third largest number of foreign bureaus after the New York Times and Wall Street Journal). But like many newspapers, its business model is decidedly local — the majority of revenue still comes from tie ads and the like. Bezos will certainly push to bring the business side of the paper up to speed with its editorial aspirations. His motivations for buying the Post surely combine both canny self-interest with actual regard for the media business and a desire to help it make a profitable leap into the digital age. If he succeeds with a paper as important as the Post, nobody will care much which of those things motivated him most.
An earlier version of this article misstated the value of sports mogul John Henry’s purchase of the Boston Globe. It’s $70 million, not $10 million.