During a quick trip to Maryland for a weekend wedding, I was in the nation’s capital long enough to discover who it is that has caught the town’s attention. It is not President Obama off on his golf vacation or any of the members of Congress scattered back to their home districts. No, the person of great interest is a Seattle billionaire named Jeff Bezos.
Bezos, the founder and master of the Amazon.com online retail empire, has just agreed to purchase the Washington Post, and everyone from loyal subscribers to journalists with national reputations is speculating about what this surprising sale may mean for the city, for inside-the-beltway politics and for the future of traditional journalism.
Many have wondered if journalism as we have known it has any future. Metro newspapers have faced a calamitous drop in revenue in the last decade as advertisers have rushed to the Internet like passengers mobbing lifeboats on the Titanic. Ironically, in an age when the public is gorging on information like never before, the most respected purveyors of reliable information -- newspapers -- have become endangered enterprises.
As a man with nearly unlimited wealth and a shrewd understanding of the future of online commerce and publishing, Bezos would seem to be exactly the kind of person who might have the patience and brains to create a new business model to support serious journalism. That is the hope of Donald Graham, the Post Co.'s CEO and son of the late, great Katherine Graham, the woman who oversaw the Post during its glory years.
Two years ago, Don Graham was brought to the realization that he had three choices: keep losing gobs of money, start making cuts in staff and quality that would turn the Post into a mediocre rag, or sell the newspaper to someone who might be able to sustain financial losses while reinventing the news business. Graham chose the third option and went looking for a worthy buyer. To almost everyone’s surprise, he found Bezos.
Bezos has said the right things, pledging that he will not forsake the high journalistic values of the Post as he experiments with new business tactics. Oddly, though, he would not agree to be interviewed for the top-of-the-front-page article the Post ran about him in Sunday’s newspaper. As the story noted, Bezos has always shunned the media, except for friendly reporters who could further his interests.
So, the question is, does Bezos really understand the core mission of journalism? Unlike any other business, a news enterprise often engages in the kind of hard-hitting reporting that alienates customers and provokes the ire of important leaders in government and the corporate world. The best news organizations will spend great amounts of money on endeavors such as investigative reporting and far-flung news bureaus that will never be profit centers. In the old days, when it was said any idiot could make a fortune running a newspaper, the better publishers found it easy to support the public service aspects of journalism, but not so much anymore.
Bean counters with little concern for the public good now rule most of the newspaper industry. Bezos has more beans than he can count, but, as he reshapes the Post, will he understand that the great newspaper owners have been as much philanthropists as they have been businessmen? In this lean-and-mean era, is Bezos ready to lose millions propping up the kind of news-gathering our democracy needs while he seeks a new magic formula to make journalism a viable business once again?