“You’ll have heard the news, and many of you will greet it with a degree of apprehension,” is how Jeff Bezos addressed his newest employees after purchasing the Washington Post for a reported $250 million. In a letter to the newspaper staff, the Amazon founder said, “The values of The Post do not need changing,” and promised that he won’t be handling any of the newspaper’s day-to-day duties, because “I am happily living in ‘the other Washington’ where I have a day job that I love.”
Media and business types alike are apprehensive about the acquisition for all the right reasons, and seconds after the announcement, Twitter was flooded first with the typical mix of quick reaction quips that comes with any big announcement, which made for plenty of jokes on the matter — some good, some not. But once the hubbub around the latest landscape-altering event has subsided, we will comb for clues to figure out what sort of newspaper owner will Bezos be. What will it mean for the future of the newspaper? What exactly does he mean when he says, “There will of course be change at The Post over the coming years,” and why would Bezos even want to own a newspaper?
Some might say the purchase of a big newspaper by a billionaire is pure hubris. And while that might be the case, Bezos is specifically buying the newspaper that can claim 47 Pulitzer Prizes; but he’s buying the hometown newspaper of our nation’s capital. As much as I’d like to say that Bezos is nothing more than a super-rich guy rounding out his portfolio, you buy the Boston Globe for $70 million if you’re looking for a vanity project; you buy Washington DC’s bigger, more expensive, nationally relevant newspaper because you want that power — which is also why the Koch Brothers expressed interest in buying the Tribune‘s regional papers. It might make us feel better to chalk these purchases up to rich dudes and their toys, but owning a major newspaper ushers the owner into a whole new sphere of influence, and that is why a guy who’s worth $22.1 billion bought the Washington Post.
(It should be noted that the sale was also really good for other mega-rich people, like Warren Buffett, who purchased 1.7 million shares of the Washington Post Company in 2004 for $11 million. Those shares were already worth $772 million at the end of 2013’s first quarter, but in after-hours trading last night, the Washington Post Company sold at $598, which values Buffett’s holdings at $1.01 billion. As Business Insider points out, that’s an over 9000% gain.)
But will Bezos’ involvement in the newspaper necessarily be a bad thing? This will likely be impossible to tell for quite a while, but there is some merit in looking at a few of the other oligarchs — both past and present — who have owned big newspapers, and how they used that new power. As Peter Kafka pointed out on Twitter, the Washington Post is unionized, so the “instant Amazonian overhaul” some are expecting seems unrealistic, at least in the short-term. But how about this worrisome conflict of interest that Gawker pointed out: that little thing about Amazon recently landing a $600 million contract to build an entire cloud computing system for the CIA, which may or may not mean Bezos now has top-secret information at his disposal. All of this means that any crystal ball pundits are using to see the future will still be too cloudy to tell us much of anything, and the way Amazon does business might not be the best indicator of how the CEO’s new newspaper will proceed. One of the few things we know for sure is that this is yet another example of new media overtaking the old guard, and that means, as Tyler Cowen pointed out, that not only will companies like Amazon keep collecting your data moving forward, but they just acquired a whole lot of new content.
Finally, of course, there is the talk of how the newspaper that employs Ron Charles, one of the most respected literary critics in the country, will grow its books coverage once it’s owned by the man who also owns the Kraken-like, industry titan that is Amazon. While I believe that, in this case, matters of politics are more important than literary discussion, I feel oddly optimistic that a guy who makes a ton of money selling books will respect the paper’s existing book coverage. I could be really wrong about this — the newspaper has, after all, already gotten rid of its standalone book section. But whatever happens, it’s just one more piece of the weird puzzle that makes this purchase all the more intriguing.