business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

Jeff Bezos, the owner and founder of who has helped turn e-commerce into an everyday factor in American life, yesterday agreed to acquire the Washington Post and numerous other media properties from the Graham family, which has owned the paper for some eight decades, for $250 million.

The purchase came just a couple of days after the New York Times Company said that it will sell the Boston Globe and other New England media businesses to John W. Henry, principal owner of the Boston Red Sox, for $70 million. The Times bought the Globe in 1993 for $1.1 billion.

Bezos reportedly is purchasing the Post on his own, and the paper will not be part of

In a letter to staffers, Bezos promised not to tinker with the paper's core values, though he acknowledged the need to "invent" and "experiment" as the paper is synched with the demands of a digital age.

"The values of The Post do not need changing," he wrote. "The paper’s duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners. We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes. When we do, we will own up to them quickly and completely."

He continued: ""There will of course be change at The Post over the coming years. That’s essential and would have happened with or without new ownership. 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."

The unexpected announcement was said to send shock waves through the paper and the media world in general. Bob Woodward, perhaps the most famous journalist at the Post, told Politico in an email that his "overall thought is that this a very good outcome for the Post.  Bezos has the money, patience and potential vision to make this work. He is an original who has changed commerce. Gutsy call by Don Graham in the larger interests of the paper and its survival.  It is all about money.  Once the ad and circulation revenue sunk, they had to do something.  So I am optimistic for the moment."

Optimistic for the moment.

That's probably the default position for many in the newsroom, and for the many readers who depend on the Post each day for their news and analysis. But the harsh reality is that over the past decade, the Post has been hemorrhaging money and losing subscribers and advertisers. or maybe it has been losing money and hemorrhaging subscribers and advertisers. This has happened because of the disruptive impact of technology and non-traditional competition, and because the Post, like many newspapers, has found it difficult to come up with ways to remain relevant in a 21st century media environment.

Such a scenario is not just limited to the media business. Virtually every industry, and the icons that dominate those industries, are vulnerable to such influences.

The good news for the Post, I think, is that Jeff Bezos is a guy who specializes in disruption. He embraces change. Encourages it. Part of the ongoing strategic approach at Amazon is forcing all executives to rethink their businesses, to figure out how to put themselves out of business, and then turn those insights into new businesses and strategic directions. That is a mentality that most newspapers have sorely lacked.

In addition, Bezos is a guy who has demonstrated a willingness to lose money in the short-term while developing a long-term strategy. The metaphor I like to use is that he plays chess while many of his competitors play checkers.

Finally, while Bezos clearly is an unsentimental executive - once it has been demonstrated that a business has no future, he is perfectly willing to dump it - he also is a person of eclectic interests. How else to explain the fact that he has spent a significant amount of money to recover from the ocean floor the Apollo rocket engines that launched the first men to the moon?

But the interest that I find most fascinating is his involvement with something called The 10,000 Year Clock, which currently is being built in the mountains of West Texas on property owned by Bezos. On the website, it says that "building something to last 10,000 years requires both a large dose of optimism and a lot of knowledge. There’s a huge geek-out factor in the Clock because the engineering challenges are formidable. What do you build with that won’t corrode in 100 centuries? How do you keep it accurate when no one is around?" (You can read all about it here.)

That sounds like a pretty good list of attributes for someone in the media business, or any business for that matter. Optimism. Knowledge. The willingness to address and embrace challenges. The desire to create something sustainable.

I hope that what Bezos does at the Washington Post is an Eye-Opener. I like the odds.
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