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Washington Post sold to Jeff Bezos: End of old media or new hope?

Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos says he's not out to change Washington Post values or micromanage operations. He has a record of investing for the long term and presiding over profitable enterprises.

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Mr. Bezos – who is buying the paper himself, it will not be part of the Amazon empire – has proved a master of reinvention, expansion, and foresight. Once, buying books online seemed a foreign process, but now, in large measure because of Bezos, we click many of our purchases instead of strolling into the neighborhood store. He also has a record at Amazon of investing for the long term, even in the face of sustained losses.

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In a statement to the paper’s employees, Bezos acknowledged the “apprehension” the staff must feel and assured Posties that the paper’s values “do not need changing.”

“The paper’s duty will remain to its readers and not the private interests of its owners,” he said. “We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes.”

But Bezos plans to stay in Seattle, and he says he will not lead the day-to-day operations of the paper. He is keeping the current management team, which includes Ms. Weymouth and editor Marty Baron, in place. How long that will last is anyone’s guess.

Shouldn’t an owner live and breathe the city in which the publication is rooted? Isn’t that part of the grand history of this and other vibrant outlets, that its leaders understand the news and feel invested in its coverage because it’s happening around them?

The purchase also represents less than 1 percent of Bezos’ wealth; Forbes estimates his net worth at $28 billion. Hardly an all-in, do-or-die proposition for the businessman. The Post, meanwhile, is in its seventh consecutive year of declining revenues. The Grahams needed a golden parachute for the publication, a chance at rebirth without the massive cost-cutting required, even if the path forward with Bezos at the helm seems wholly uncertain.

What then is Bezos’ plan? How important will it be to make money over the long haul? Is this a vanity exercise, a side investment that gives him influence in Washington? Under his guide, how will the paper cover the many key policy matters that impact the bulk of his business, from tax policy and privacy concerns to trade to worker issues? 

All important questions whose answers aren’t yet apparent.

Bezos is the second business tycoon of late to dip a toe into the news business. Word came just last weekend Boston Red Sox owner John Henry purchased The Boston Globe from The New York Times Company for $70 million. Financier Warren Buffett, who served on the Post's board for more than two decades, purchased the Omaha World-Herald in 2011.

But reporters in other newsrooms might caution against the billionaire solution as cure-all, even as other options for survival seem untenable. Real estate magnate Sam Zell is widely regarded as having run the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune publications into the ground after he bought the Tribune Co. They are functioning, but shadows of their former selves after being mired in bankruptcy proceedings for years.

The Post deal will be finalized within 60 days, according to the paper’s reporting. In Washington and across the industry, those interested in the survival of print or, more realistically, its evolution into a viable new media provider of quality journalism will be watching closely what happens at the paper. For those who care about meaningful reporting and storytelling, Bezos must prove himself able to make money without sacrificing those key markers of the Post’s legacy to date.

A cyber-age steward of an old media giant. The match hasn’t worked out in other venues yet. But here’s hoping it might.

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