With Bezos, Washington Post in Good - if Not Better - Hands

At their peak, Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee wielded enormous power in Washington
West Wing Reports


“A lot of people think I’m a prick,” Richard Nixon once complained, “but I’m really not.” He blamed, first and foremost, The Washington Post for his troubles – and this, if you can believe it, was 20 years before Watergate. 

Now, somewhere, Nixon’s ghost must be laughing at how far and how fast the Post – the once great, once feared newspaper that brought his presidency down – fell before being scooped up at the bargain-basement price of just $250 million by Jeff Bezos.


Even at that price did the Amazon tycoon overpay? What does he care? The guy’s worth $26 billion. But he didn’t overpay. The Post has run itself into the ground in recent years, done in by the usual forces that are killing newspapers: the drip, drip, drip of advertising revenue to free sites like Craigslist and specialty sites for cars, real estate and job listings – and a stunning inability to adapt quickly and efficiently to the internet, and to mobile devices. Newspaper dynasties like the Graham family, which ran the Post for four generations, had the cash and, it was presumed, the brains to adapt, but ran out of both.

In the end, the Post – a sad, wilting shadow of its former self – went for just a quarter of the $1 billion that Facebook shelled out last year for Instagram, a photo-sharing app that at the time had just 13 employees. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, another too-smart-for-his-own-britches uber-billionaire, probably overpaid, but the point here is that the marketplace has correctly discounted newspapers that only reach a few hundred thousand homes while tacking on vast premiums to small, nimble outfits that can reach millions, tens of millions, even hundreds of millions quickly.


Don’t get me wrong. The Post’s web site gets millions of page views – it’s the 105th most visited site in the United States, according to Alexa.com – but if they can’t make a decent buck off it, what’s the use? Advertisers continue to pay far less to reach web visitors than they do, say, network TV viewers. The Post, because its unique and world-class content, could have gone the paywall route like The New York Times, but the Grahams, until only recently resisted. By the time they came around, it was too late. 

The question is, if the Grahams – truly newspaper royalty – couldn’t figure out how to save the Post, what chance does Bezos, smart as he is, have? “The values of The Post do not need changing,” he said yesterday in a letter to the paper’s stunned employees. We all know what that means: fair reporting, journalistic integrity and all that First Amendment  stuff. Great. But one thing does need changing, and fast: Bezos has to figure out how to make a buck.


Here’s the really astonishing thing: the Washington area is booming: Six of America’s ten richest counties surround the city, yet the brainos at the Post couldn’t figure out how to tap into all that wealth. The D.C. area sailed through the horrible downturn that hurt the rest of the nation – yet since 2008, the Post has shed 19 percent of its subscribers. Young, upscale consumers by the boatload, and the paper couldn’t cut it.

Perhaps Bezos, who built the world’s biggest online retailer from scratch, could turn that around, but he’s not interested: “I won’t be leading The Washington Post day-to-day. I am happily living in “the other Washington” where I have a day job that I love. Besides that, The Post already has an excellent leadership team that knows much more about the news business than I do, and I’m extremely grateful to them for agreeing to stay on.”


That’s like telling the Captain of the Titanic full speed ahead after smashing into the iceberg. So why is Bezos – a nice guy but still a hard-nosed businessman – buying? I guess we’ll have to read all about it – but I suspect we won’t be doing so in the newspaper.


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