Jeff Bezos is a man on a mission -- a mission to change both the physical world and the world of ideas.
He began by shifting books from the world of shelves and stores to the endless reaches of the internet. And while Amazon has had a profound impact on books, it's fair to say that there are divided camps as to what he's done to both support and upend the book business. The jury is very much out on that.
At the same time -- he's had in many ways a much more profound and measurable impact on the growth of the web itself. Amazon Web Services has moved quickly, surely, and efficiently to provide cloud-based services that now power a significant and growing underpinning of web technology.
And finally in ecommerce, Amazon has built a sophisticated and highly useful shopping mall that makes it easy to find everything from shoes to flat-screen TVs, and connect with other buyers to get feedback and reviews from actually users.
And while Bezos has had a toe in content, it has been until now mostly seen as a way to prime the pump for the sale of Kindle Fire devices and Amazon Instant video services.
Today -- in a lighting-bolt announcement -- Bezos is buying the Washington Post.
Everyone in print, newspapers, and local media has to take a breath and think hard about what this means, and why.
First, the good news. Bezos rarely gets it wrong. He's made a number of personal investments that reflect his passions and interests.
He launched Blue Origin in 2000 to develop a space craft. He's building a rocket launch pad in West Texas. He's put 42 million dollars into Danny Hillis' project "The Clock of The Long Now." The clock is one of several projects through which the foundation intends to promote long-term thinking. Which is to say -- Bezos is thinking about more than how to sell stuff and move boxes around the world. He's thinking about tomorrow, and he's thinking about how he can build a legacy.
And let's face it, local has been a complex and troubled space -- and print has been facing precipitous declines in local newspaper subscriptions, revenues, and relevance. Having the active imagination of Bezos focused on this space, and thinking through the relationships between print and digital and local promises to bring some new energy and excitement to an important piece of our civic discourse.
Now, the other side of the coin. What does this mean? Is this Jeff Bezos moving into the political realm? Why the Washington Post? Why the other local papers? And why not the digital properties including Slate -- which the Post also owns? Bezos has historically been out of the political limelight, making small donations to both Democratic and Republican candidates. We'll certainly get more information on his plans and vision in the coming weeks and months -- but it doesn't seem on the face of it to be ideological.
The sale hastens the shift of multigenerational family owners of metropolitan newspapers. Most major newspapers were owned by local families with decades-long ties to their town or city, but that ownership profile is now almost gone. The family-owned newspapers that have sold include the owners of the Los Angeles Times (Chandlers), Wall Street Journal (Bancrofts), Minneapolis Star Tribune (Cowles) and San Diego Union-Tribune (Copleys).
The internet hastened that change. Bezos will remain in Seattle -- as he says, he has a great day job.
The sale to Bezos includes the paper and the web site washingtonpost.com, along with a number of other local papers including the Fairfax County Times, El Tiempo Latino, a Spanish-language paper, the Express newspaper, the Gazette Newspapers and Southern Maryland Newspapers in suburban D.C., and the Robinson printing plant in Springfield. Bezos will also purchase the Company print printing operation in Gaithersburg.
In an email to Washington Post employees today Don Graham quoted billionaire investor Warren Buffett, a longtime advisor to the Post Co., calling Bezos "the ablest CEO in America."