The Bezos Post: The Graham family’s honourable gamble

Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post and its community newspapers caught me and just about everyone else by surprise, with the possible exception of the Graham Family, which has owned the paper for the last 80 years. They have been talking to a half dozen buyers since last December. As I said on Twitter when I found out, this was the most surprising deal since AOL bought Time-Warner, although I hope for Bezos and the Post that the result is different. 

Like a lot of media watchers, I was trying to make sense of this head scratcher. As Steve Yelvington said on Facebook:

Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post is as interesting for what he didn’t buy as for what he did. It’s not a real estate gambit; he didn’t buy the Post HQ building (which is still on the market). He did’t buy @wapolabs, which seems to have gone dark anyway. He didn’t buy Slate. And he didn’t buy Kaplan, which operates in an industry (education) that seems ripe for disruption.

I got a chance to scratch my head in public on the BBC today. Thinking back on it, I think that the sale says more about the Graham family than it does about Bezos at this point. The Graham family vetted six different buyers, and they chose Bezos. In the New Yorker, David Remnick, who spent a decade writing for the Post, and he spoke to publisher Katharine Weymouth, a member of the Graham family. She said:

Don took this process extremely seriously. He would not have sold the paper to anyone who didn’t share our values.

Donald Graham, and the rest of the family, truly seemed to have come to believe that the newspaper would be better off under Bezos than under their stewardship. Graham told the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein this:

As we looked ahead, if revenues kept declining we’d have no choice but to keep cutting. Roughly 85 percent of stock in the Post Company is owned by shareholders not in the Graham family. So the money we’re losing isn’t our own. We didn’t feel good about that. Still we were quite certain that The Post could survive and have a long future, but we wanted to do more than survive. We wanted to be successful and expanding and financially strong. So for the first time in either of our lives we asked ourselves if we thought our small public company was still the best place for the newspaper.

One thing that wasn’t covered very much was the business terms of taking the newspaper private. However, one assumes that this isn’t a Sam Zell-Chicago Tribune leveraged-to-the-hilt buyout that assumes the worst case scenario is flat revenue just before the global economy almost takes a swan dive off a cliff. 

What will Bezos do to help the Post “do more than survive”? Bezos is bringing his customer-centric focus to the Washington Post, and he implicitly understands the relentless urgency of news in the internet age. In his letter to the Post staff he wrote:

The Internet is transforming almost every element of the news business: shortening news cycles, eroding long-reliable revenue sources, and enabling new kinds of competition, some of which bear little or no news-gathering costs. There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy. We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment. 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. I’m excited and optimistic about the opportunity for invention.

However, this is a man who also has not only the resources but also the mindset balance the impatience of internet time with a grounding in a long-term vision. As Matt Buchanan wrote in the New Yorker:

Bezos is a man, after all, who’s trying to build a clock that will run for ten millennia which is buried inside of a remote mountain in Texas, simply because he desired the existence of “an icon for long-term thinking.” 

The Graham family’s bet on Bezos is a brave, honourable gamble, and I hope for the Post, for their staff, for Washington and for journalism, that Bezos is the man for the challenge. It is going to be a great experiment to watch. 

Other interesting takes on this: 

• Alan Mutter riffing on the idea of Washington Post Prime in the Post’s Wonkbook blog.
Megan McArdle’s look at the deal in Bloomberg. The most fascinating part of her post has nothing to do with the Washington Post and newspapers but the numbers of the decline in ad pages for major magazines. (The double-digit decline in ad pages in The Economist and The Week took me by surprise.)
“Why Washington Post sale matters to you: scale and innovation” by Earl J. Wilkinson of INMA. I’ll be writing about this tomorrow. One of the best posts on the topic bar none if you’re a publisher or news executive.