In the insta-analysis of the stunning deal that put the Washington Post in the hands of a billionaire whose company didn't even exist two decades ago, the transaction tends to get dismissed as something other than a business deal.
In some accounts, Jeff Bezos is just another unfathomably rich guy loading up on a vanity toy that's landed in the bargain bin. "Some billionaires like cars, yachts and private jets," sniffed Andrew Ross Sorkin. "Others like newspapers."
Others treat the deal like an act of charity, likening Bezos to the robber barons of the late 19th century who plowed their monopoly winnings into public goods like concert halls and universities. Perhaps this is "the beginning of a phase in which this Gilded Age's major beneficiaries re-invest in the infrastructure of our public intelligence," suggested James Fallows.
That would be wonderful. Yet maybe the deal signifies something much simpler and more hopeful for the state of American journalism: Perhaps Bezos thinks he can make money by producing and distributing consequential work.
As Bezos launched Amazon in the mid-1990s and then forged it into a colossus, he and his partners delighted in turning conventional wisdom on its head. The Web, it was said, was destined to destroy book publishing. All the words would live in what we now call the cloud. Anyone with connectivity would become their own publisher, bringing down those elitist institutions that had long exacted their rents by maintaining their status as gatekeepers to literary taste. The owners of the presses would see their monopolistic grip eroded by the Internet -- the same sort of meritocratic celebration that has more recently formed the corpus of obituaries for great print newspapers.
Yet in one of the delicious ironies of the dawn of the Web, Bezos and Amazon proved that the same technology that was supposed to undermine text on the page and eviscerate its business model could in fact be harnessed to sell more books than ever. Maybe he thinks he can duplicate the trick by retooling another supposed casualty of the Web -- serious-minded journalism.
It's worth bearing in mind that Bezos never accepted the charge often thrown at his enterprise: that Amazon was basically just another Walmart built on fiber optics instead of bricks and mortar. His didn't aim to become merely a faceless purveyor of commodity goods that would undercut the local merchant on price alone. He described his mission as one of erecting an updated, more sophisticated shopping experience. He would use the technological possibilities of the Web to build a platform that would know more about the tastes and purchasing histories of the customer than any local bookstore.
"I want to transport online bookselling back to the days of the small bookseller, who got to know you very well and would say things like, 'I know you like John Irving, and guess what, here's this new author, I think he's a lot like John Irving,'" Bezos told David Streitfeld in an exceptionally prescient profile published way back in July 1998 in -- as it happens -- the pages of the Washington Post.
You can argue about Bezos and Amazon's track record in the years since, whether and how much the company's success reflects its hard-edged treatment of workers and regulatory arbitrage in terms of sales tax policies. You can make the case that Amazon is in key respects much like Walmart -- a behemoth capable of wielding its size and ubiquity to crush competitors.
But if you care about the future of journalism, it's also worth appreciating that the Washington Post -- forever linked to Watergate and myriad feats of accountability reporting since -- is now owned by someone with a demonstrated track record of harnessing the Internet to rejuvenate something already established and meaningful. Someone with an extraordinary digital vision and access to great stores of money. Someone who has used both of those goods to reshape the consumer experience for millions of people while yielding sustainable profits. That's no small thing.
For this, we can thank Don Graham, the latest in a family line that -- despite inevitable missteps -- has looked after a great institution with enormous concern and regard. (I worked at the Post for a decade and I'll always be grateful for that experience.) Once Graham finally grasped that his paper could not be sustained under any available business model, he had the good sense and decency to hand it over to a deep-pocketed entrepreneur who could take a shot at the requisite experimentation.
Graham could have continued to chop away at the newsroom and reduce the Post to a sad state of mediocrity -- the trail blazed by too many local newspapers to count -- while capturing what revenues remained from a shrinking reader base. Half-heartedly and too late, the Post tried a paywall, but Graham must have known this was a loser, too: The Post was once a credible alternative to The New York Times, but no longer -- not after having shuttered its national bureaus and shrunk its foreign staff.
So he sold, and he took care to put the paper in the control of someone who has shown patience in investing while pioneering new modes of commerce. The Amazon story is instructive: Bezos persisted in pouring vast sums of money into an unprofitable business, ignoring the naysayers while staying focused on building something of great value. By the late-1990s, as Amazon was being written off in many quarters as just another dot-com that got too big too fast and might well disappear, Bezos openly scoffed at the notion of pursuing quick profitability.
"To have thought otherwise would have been management malpractice," he later told Mark Leibovich, in another profile published in -- yes -- the Washington Post. "Profits," as Leibovich explained, "meant stinting on marketing, advertising and infrastructure."
Bezos was in it for the long haul. He would invest in his vision, whatever Wall Street might say.
Now, there is no Wall Street. The Washington Post is a private company, to be run as its owner sees fit.
Building the future of e-commerce is, of course, different from taking over a legacy brand in a declining industry. But the essential similarities are worth examining. Amazon was about embracing the Web to forge a more efficient way of distributing a dusty old product, the book. That's basically what newspaper publishers have been trying to do since they figured out that the Web was real and couldn't simply be ignored: use the Internet to replace newsprint while somehow finding new revenues to replace newspaper display advertising.
"What technology has taken away, technology can return," Bezos declared in a speech at the PC Expo trade show more than 13 years ago. He was talking about how the Web, far from simple threat to traditional retail, could revive shopping with the customer in mind, personalizing the experience.
Those words might just as well now be applied to the Washington Post. People like books, so Amazon sold a lot of them. People hunger for investigative reporting, news, storytelling and analysis. The Post is full of people who excel at all of those pursuits. The holy grail is figuring out how to employ them and distribute their work in new and profitable ways.
If there is a way, Jeff Bezos has a better shot at finding it than the next guy.
This story appears in Issue 61 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, August 9.
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