More than a decade later, Bezos now owns that same paper. And, judging from his tenure at the helm of Amazon, which has alternately seemed on the brink of greatness and brink of death over the years, the Internet mogul will also bring that aggressive mentality to reshaping the 135 year-old publication he acquired Monday.
Bezos' leadership of Amazon has been characterized by a high tolerance for big investments, a patience in seeing those bets reap profits and an unwavering focus on customer service and efficiency -- values experts expect to see Bezos employ in the service of growing the Washington Post’s readership and revenues.
“He seems to be someone who has a very, very long-term view. He’s willing to wait for things to be profitable and to turn around, and I think he has a clear vision of how to get there,” said David Bell, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “He does have a history of being able to succeed where people thought he might not.”
Bezos, it should also be remembered, has plenty of experience running a money-losing business, and he isn’t fazed by making aggressive expenditures that might at first seem unlikely to yield success. In 2001, some analysts were already writing Amazon’s obituary, and it took the company seven years to turn a profit. The Washington Post has also been losing money for the past seven years.
A letter Bezos penned in 1997 to Amazon investors outlined in clear terms the chief executive’s priorities and vision and, tellingly, has been included with all of the founder’s subsequent letters to date. It not only provides a guide to Bezos’ vision for Amazon, but also hints at the ideas Bezos is likely to bring to his newspaper, experts say.
“The message contained in these letters is how to think about building an astonishing company,” Sequoia Capital Chairman Michael Moritz wrote in a LinkedIn blog post about Bezos’ letters to investors over the years. “Word that Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is buying the Washington Post might cause consternation in its newsroom, but uneasy journalists wondering about what lies in store might be reassured if they read the letters he has sent to shareholders since 1997.”
In Bezos’ 1997 corporate manifesto, he stresses he’s “all about the long-term” and emphasizes the need to “obsess over customers” -- two ideas echoed in the letter he wrote to the employees of the Washington Post concerning the sale of the newspaper.
“I’m excited and optimistic about the opportunity for invention,” he wrote Monday. “Our touchstone will be readers, understanding what they care about -- government, local leaders, restaurant openings, scout troops, businesses, charities, governors, sports -- and working backwards from there.”
But some, like Harvard Business School professor John Deighton, maintain Bezos may not have the same patience for profitability when it comes to the Washington Post. Deighton speculated that Bezos will quickly move to get rid of major costs, like printing presses and delivery trucks -- hastening the sunset of print. As Bezos himself noted in an interview last year with a German newspaper, translated by TechCrunch, "There is one thing I’m certain about: There won’t be printed newspapers in twenty years." (He also noted, "On the Web, people don’t pay for news and it’s too late for that to change.")
“He doesn’t have the same luxury with the Washington Post [as with Amazon]. I think you’ll see him move faster to accelerate its reinvention as a digital product,” said Deighton. “The losses from [the Washington Post] will destroy the profits from [Amazon].”
Bezos’ 1997 letter also underscored Amazon’s determination to “spend wisely and maintain our lean culture … particularly in a business incurring net losses.” Even since it has become profitable, Amazon has maintained that focus on frugality: While Google offers lavish perks like massages and 3D-printed pasta, Amazon has sought to cut costs with measures like removing the lightbulbs from its company vending machines. While Bezos is expected to make long-term investments to secure the Washington Post’s future, it is likely that the lean, cost-conscious attitude will be fostered at the media company, experts said.
No one is yet certain what Bezos will do for the Post -- including Bezos, who acknowledged in an interview with the newspaper that he doesn’t have a “worked-out plan.”
But then again, a similar ethos guided Amazon: As futurist Paul Saffo told the Washington Post in 2000, “Jeff is launching this giant cruise missile in a general direction, but he doesn’t know where it is going.”
“He’s inaugurated a business model of ‘Ready, Fire, Steer,’” Saffo added, “Not ‘Ready, Aim, Fire.’”