Jeff Bezos’ journey to newspaper magnate: Q&A with author Brad Stone

Brad Stone, a longtime Silicon Valley reporter, has been working for years on what he hopes will be the definitive account of Jeff Bezos and the rise of Amazon, the online retailing giant founded in 1994. His new book, “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon,” is slated to be published in October by Little, Brown.

On Monday, he got handed fodder for a new chapter, when Bezos once again did something unexpected and risky: he bought a newspaper, the Washington Post.

The Times talked to Stone by phone about Amazon, his book, and what exactly Bezos might be thinking by buying one of the country’s most respected newspapers in the nation’s capital--and by investing in an industry with shrinking profits.


Why write a book about Amazon?

Amazon is one of the great business stories of the day, and one of the great stories of the Internet age. There are books about Apple and Google and Facebook. And frankly, I didn’t think anyone had done a great job of chronicling the achievements of Jeff Bezos and his colleagues and his family

Have you interviewed him for the book?

Yes. And he made some colleagues and some friends and family members available for the book. But it’s Amazon: they’re a characteristically secretive company. It was challenging. I placed a bet that there were a volume of people who had left the company, or partnered with the company. And they had great stories to tell from 20 years of building a franchise that people around the world know.

The company started with books and went on to sell many things--though to my knowledge it never sold newspaper subscriptions. Now Bezos is buying a newspaper. Any idea why?

Bezos thinks that the Amazon business philosophy is very powerful and broadly applicable in all corners of business. And that philosophy is to have a long-term orientation. Don’t invest for the quarter; don’t listen to what the analysts say. Experiment a lot. Try a lot of things, and if they don’t work, be patient.

What they say is ‘Start from the customer and work backward’.... I think he believes that with that patience and his financial resources, and with a willingness to experiment and trying things readers might like, that he can revive even as storied and ailing a franchise as the Washington Post.

Are there any innovations at Amazon that might carry over to the newspaper business, or that might hint at how Bezos could change his newspaper?

One is the Kindle Singles Program, which is a way of publishing directly these short-form mini books. They recently interviewed President Obama and released it as a Kindle Single. It’s not something where there’s a lot of space for that in traditional bookstores.

Another example is the Kindle Serials program. It kind of harkens back to Charles Dickens and publishing books in a serial format. There hasn’t been a lot of experimentation in book publishing. And here Amazon comes along and believes that with some patience and long-term thinking and tenacity, they can figure out new forms of content readers would be interested in.

Is it your sense that this will impact Amazon in any way? Or is this a move of Bezos’ that’s completely independent from Amazon?

What they’re saying is that it’s a completely independent investment. It’s Jeff’s investing as an individual. I talked to Amazon board member Tom Alberg, and he said: ‘His most important job is still his day job.’ And Don Graham and Katharine Weymouth are remaining at the Washington Post, so the management of the Post isn’t changing.

It’s tempting to see this as a strategic asset for the Kindle eco-system, but it’s Jeff investing separately and applying the fundamental philosophy and long-term orientation that he operates under at Amazon, and applying it to a separate area.

Right, long-term. This is a guy who’s paying to build a 10,000-year clock in a mountain in Texas.He’s an idiosyncratic investor. There’s a space company. There’s the clock. He was an original investor in Google, which is not very well known.

He’s got enormous resources at his disposal, and I’m sure he has some pretty passionate views about journalism. He’s someone who’s had a lot of ups and downs in the media. In 2001, he was the piñata, being accused of insider trading. Twelve years later, he’s a hero and on the covers of lots of business magazines. I’m sure he’s got some pretty strong views on journalism.

At the same time, he’s given money for certain causes--including to the same-sex marriage initiative in the state of Washington.

Some people buy newspapers because they believe it’s a way of doing one’s civic duty, or to have a taste of power. Might Bezos be doing something similar?

That’s a good question. I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it in quite that way. In most of his other investments, it really has been because he sees financial opportunities for innovation. He’s passionate about entrepreneurs. When he met Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 1998, he was enamored of their stubbornness and the fact that they didn’t want to put advertisements on the front page of Google. And he bet on them. Often times he makes decisions because he believes in the entrepreneurs. If you saw his letter on Washington, he said he’s known Don Graham for a decade and that there’s no finer man. So clearly they have a relationship as well. So he might be making an investment on Don Graham and his management team and figuring that with a little extra bit of runway he can turn around the newspaper.

So were you surprised by the announcement?

I’ve been covering Amazon for at least 14 years. I was very surprised. Jeff has basically shown an interest in investing in new business models and new technologies. Where he has invested in the media it’s been in properties like Business Insider, the blog. Or Next Door, which is a local social network, where you’re getting a fundamentally different relationship between writer and reader. And you’re using technology to find readers in new ways.

These companies have none of the old, associated costs of the older newspapers, like the pension obligations. Helping to spark a renaissance in a 136-year-old newspaper is not something I thought he would be doing.


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