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.

By , Correspondent

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    A visitor views the front page of The Washington Post, displayed outside the Newseum in Washington on Tuesday, a day after it was announced that Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post for $250 million.
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There was shock and sadness in Washington Monday afternoon as headlines marked: “An era to end as Post is sold.”

Word that, after 80 years, the Graham family would part with the crown jewel of its empire – the storied but struggling Washington Post – to the tune of $250 million rocked the city. The news that the buyer is Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos, who despite his documented genius as an Internet commerce entrepreneur has no experience in traditional print journalism, sent politicos and scribes into analysis overdrive.

Does this transition provide a glaring sign of the nearing end for print, the demise of which has been heralded for at least a decade as other city papers have been sold by devoted family dynasties to journalism novices whose focus is the bottom line? Or, once the obituaries of the Post ‘as we knew it’ are processed, might there be a silver lining here?

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Opinions are mixed.

“Bezos re-Kindles hope at WaPo,” wrote Politico.

The Atlantic called the sale, “A moment that will define an era’s upheaval in journalism.”

In the hours after the announcement, shares of the Washington Post Co. climbed to $599.85, their highest level in almost five years, according to Reuters. A glimmer of hope.

What seems to be consensus across these and other diagnoses, and is reflected in the market’s response, is that the paper, as it was, would not have lasted. It was hemorrhaging cash and losing readers. Growth in advertising revenue proved elusive. And while the Grahams had over the years sought to boost the company’s portfolio by acquiring other money makers – notably the test preparation outfit Kaplan Inc. – it wasn’t enough to offset red ink since 2008 from the newspaper division.

Physically, the paper was downsized. Domestic bureaus were shuttered. And a refocus on online traffic became paramount. No shock here, the whole industry is facing the same reality, and, though far from extinct, enterprise stories, elegant long-form works, and overseas reporting have begun to be eclipsed by blogging and vlogging and the quest for more and more content at a lower cost.

Still, of course, the paper that took down a president broke big news stories – recently making its mark in reports on the government’s domestic surveillance programs – and won prizes. All while it has faced challenges from newer, faster outlets, such as Washington rival Politico, to stay ahead on the city’s political news stories.

The announcement came as a surprise to staff. In the newsroom, there were tears and applause of gratitude, acknowledgements that for Donald Graham, chairman and chief executive of Post Co., and Katharine Weymouth, the paper’s publisher, options were limited.

“Everyone who was in that room knows how much Don and Katharine love the paper and how hard this must have been for them,” said David Ignatius, a veteran Post columnist.

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.

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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