OpinionTop of the Ticket

Is Jeff Bezos journalism's savior or just another bean counter?

Media IndustryNewspapersJeff BezosJournalismNewspaper and MagazineBarack Obama

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?

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
Media IndustryNewspapersJeff BezosJournalismNewspaper and MagazineBarack Obama
  • Edward Snowden should remember Putin is no free-speech champion
    Edward Snowden should remember Putin is no free-speech champion

    Edward Snowden has escaped the limbo of the transit lounge at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport and now, in the style of former Vice President Dick Cheney, the fugitive leaker is hunkered down in an undisclosed location somewhere in Russia.

  • Anthony Weiner's sins pale beside prostitution of Congress
    Anthony Weiner's sins pale beside prostitution of Congress

    All but a few macho holdouts among the let-men-be-men faction agree that Anthony Weiner is not worthy of becoming mayor of America’s biggest city, but there is a perennial threat to our democracy that is far larger than the turgid tweets of the former congressman from New York. That threat...

  • College campuses are fertile ground for promoting Obamacare
    College campuses are fertile ground for promoting Obamacare

    Much has been made of the need to enroll "young invincibles" under the Affordable Care Act. These are young adults who, according to many, are often uninsured because they think they don't need insurance. They are also critically important to the success of the ACA. Without their...

  • The LAUSD board election matters; voters should turn out
    The LAUSD board election matters; voters should turn out

    On Aug. 12, voters in Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education District 1 will choose between Alex Johnson and George McKenna. The winner will join the LAUSD's seven-member board and will represent some of the region's poorest communities, desperately in need of...

  • Why should Richard Alarcon get a full pension?
    Why should Richard Alarcon get a full pension?

    Former Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon was found guilty last week of perjury and voter fraud for lying about living in his district. But even though the jury concluded that he wasn't actually eligible to serve as councilman during the time he was living elsewhere, Alarcon...

  • Congress has moral responsibility to address border children
    Congress has moral responsibility to address border children

    Congress is nearing an impasse over how to deal with the overwhelming flow of unaccompanied minors across the Mexican border. Failure to address this heartbreaking humanitarian crisis before the August recess will stand not only as a political failure, but as a moral one for a Congress that...

Comments
Loading