Add to basket: Why did dot com king Jeff Bezos buy the Washington Post?

Amazon founder's purchase came from his personal $23bn fortune

Media Editor

It was a "Holy Sh*t story", to use a favourite phrase of the Washington Post newsroom grandee Ben Bradlee when describing the kind of impactful tale that might cause a reader digestion problems at the breakfast table.

Except this front page news was not another Watergate scandal - the scoop that won the Post its global reputation - but the revelation that the paper itself has been sold to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos for a relatively paltry $250m (£163m).

"Holy shit" was a popular Twitter reaction among American journalists after the paper's splash headline signalled the end of its relationship with the family that has owned it for 80 years: "Grahams to sell The Post."

Among the paper's staff, there was incredulity. "Like everyone else, I'm shocked," admitted writer Ezra Klein to his readers. "No one in the newsroom really knows what to think of the sale," said his colleague Jim Tankersley. They had all been called to a 4.30pm meeting - but the gossip was that the impending announcement would concern its iconic headquarters building at 1150, 15th Street, which is up for sale.

Instead, the news was of a seismic shift in American media. The founder of one of the Internet's great successes was not merely disrupting a famous traditional business, he was buying it up - and with money from his own pocket.

Bezos's purchase of the "WaPo" came from his personal fortune of $23.2 billion (£15.1 billion) and not as an acquisition by Amazon. The deal was being interpreted in one of two ways by America's media observers.

From some there was a sense of relief. The veteran American newsreader Dan Rather seemed to echo Bradlee when he said that his reaction to the story was "Holy online news, Batman!" On reflection, he concluded that "this will turn out to be a great day for journalism". Ted Leonsis, a former AOL executive who owns two of the city's sports teams, the Washington Wizards and the Washington Capitals, said: "Jeff Bezos is one of the best businessmen in the world and one of the wealthiest individuals on the planet. He will be a fantastic steward of this media property."

In a letter to readers, the Post's publisher Katharine Weymouth said: "This is a day that my family and I never expected to come." Weymouth is the grand-daughter of Katharine Graham, publisher of the paper in 1974 when reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (under the guidance of executive editor Bradlee) landed the scoop that caused the resignation of Richard Nixon, America's 37th President. "Mr Bezos knows as well as anyone the opportunities that come with revolutionary technology when we understand how to make the most of it. Under his ownership and with his management savvy, we will be able to accelerate the pace and quality of innovation."

But others were more pessimistic about the deal. It wasn't just a matter of Bezos showing confidence in the future of journalism - the transaction was also a result of the Grahams being desperate to sell up, and Bezos is a friend of the family. Donald Graham, chairman and ceo of The Washington Post Co, said later that he and Bezos only started discussing the deal less than a month ago.

'Holy...': The Washington Post breaks the story of its sale (EPA) 'Holy...': The Washington Post breaks the story of its sale (EPA)  


On the Post's own "Wonkblog", Klein noted that investment firm Allen & Co had been hired to find a buyer and that "a half-dozen potential suitors" had been approached before Bezos, 49, took his wallet out. And then there were the questions of how the paper's local coverage might suffer when Bezos lives in Washington State (Amazon is based in Seattle) and not the capital, and whether the Post's journalism might be compromised by "Amazon's political interests" (the company continues to attract negative headlines over its tax arrangements and labour practices).

Marcus Wohlsen of Wired had similar concerns. Observing the irony of "one of the 21st century's most media-shy tech moguls" buying a newspaper, he suggested that Bezos might be "seeking a more influential platform in the nation's capital". Only days earlier, Barack Obama had visited an Amazon warehouse and talked up the company's value as a job creator.

Bezos sought to allay any fears of a hidden agenda in a letter to the WaPo staff. "The values of the Post do not need changing," he assured them. He already had a "day job" and the paper had an "excellent" leadership team that "knows much more about the news business than I do". But "of course", there would be change because "the Internet is transforming almost every element of the news business". None of the journalists could argue with that.

But the letter still didn't answer why he had made the purchase. Although Bezos has "a fondness for the written word", he has never been a cheerleader for print media. Several years before Amazon launched the Kindle, he told the Wittgenstein blog: "God did not create the word because they were written on dead trees."  By last year, Amazon was selling 114 Kindle e-books for every 100 hardbacks and paperbacks.

Businessweek writer Brad Stone, who is writing a book called The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon admitted that the Post buy-up would cause him to undertake a "bit of updating" before he publishes in October. "Jeff has said Amazon has placed a big bet on disrupting what he calls the old gatekeepers, the institutions forged in an analogue age that stand between creators of content and consumers," Stone told New Republic. "Now he has gone and personally acquired what is one of the biggest and most well-known gatekeepers out there."

Philip Graham, left, and Eugene Meyer with the first edition in 1954 (AP) Philip Graham, left, and Eugene Meyer with the first edition in 1954 (AP)  

But he also noted the Amazon founder's love of experimentation. Bezos is building a space travel company on his own land in the Texas desert. He is also investing in a clock that might last for 10,000 years and has paid for Apollo 11 rockets to be lifted from the ocean floor. The future of newspapers is another challenge.

Amazon's finances show that he has a strange relationship to making profits. The company made a loss last year while generating huge sales growth and revenues of more than $60 billion. The site made $610m in annual advertising revenues. But shareholders seem to appreciate the Bezos strategy for dominating all things retail and Amazon has a current market capitalisation of $116 billion (£76 billion).

Henry Blodget, editor of the Business Insider blog (which Bezos invested in earlier this year) said that the billionaire would expect ownership of the Post to be "interesting, fun and cool". But it will be more than a plaything - unlike most financial investors (and most media owners), Bezos thinks long-term.

Although this isn't an Amazon deal, Blodget predicted that Bezos would be hoping that Washington Post content might be used to drive sales of Kindles and subscriptions for Amazon Prime (an elite service that includes film and television streaming in America). The paper's web traffic could also boost Amazon shopping, he suggested.

Jeff Bezos is an innovator and he will have his ideas for transforming the fortunes of one of the world's great newspapers. The Washington Post loses $50m a year but, with this momentous deal costing him less than 1 per cent of his net worth, the billionaire made a quick decision: "Add to Basket".

Timeline: The Washington Post

1930s: Eugene Meyer, Katharine Graham’s father, buys the then bankrupt Washington Post for $825,000 in a public auction on the steps of the paper’s headquarters, on June 1, 1933. In those days, the Post was a distant second to the city’s main paper, the Washington Star.

1940s: Don Graham, Katharine’s husband, takes over from his father in law as publisher in 1947, becoming president of the newly formed Washington Post company.

1950s: the Post merges with its morning rival the Washington Times-Herald in 1954. But the Star, an evening paper, is still the dominant force.

1960s: In 1961 the Post Co. acquires Newsweek magazine. Katharine Graham becomes publisher, after the suicide of her husband in 1963. In 1968 Ben Bradlee becomes executive editor. As the surburbs grow, posing problems for an evening paper, the Post starts to supplant the Star.

1970s: The glorious decade, of the Pentagon Papers publication (1971) and the paper’s tenacious coverage of the Watergate scandal, when for months the Post was virtually alone in pursuing the story that would bring down President Nixon. The paper also wins a historic strike battle with the print union in 1975. Sales rise from 500,000 to 600,000 daily.

1980s: The Post Co. diversifies, opening a new printing plant, moving into cable TV, and buying Kaplan, a lucrative for-profit education company. Sales climb to almost 800,000, after the closure of the Washington Star in 1981.

1990s: The fat years, and also the changing of the guard. Sales hit a peak of 832,000 in 1993.  Bradlee retires in 1991, replaced by Len Downie. In 1993 Katharine Graham’s son Don takes over as chairman of the Washington Post Co. Three years later, the paper starts its website,

2000 – present: The Post initially continues to expand, launching a free commuter daily and buying the online magazine Slate, but sales slide, hitting 474,000 in March 2013. Retrenchment follows, with the closure of many bureaus, redundancy programmes and the sale of struggling Newsweek in 2010, for $1. In July 2013 the Post is sold to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal
peopleThreats follows actress' speech on feminism and equality at the UN
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
Arts and Entertainment
Worldwide ticket sales for The Lion King musical surpassed $6.2bn ($3.8bn) this summer
tvMusical is biggest grossing show or film in history
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Manager

£50 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Mana...

Senior Account Executive / Account Executive

£25 - 30k (DOE) + Bonus & Benefits: Guru Careers: We are looking for an Accoun...

Account Manager / Sales Account Manager / Recruitment Account Manager

£25k Basic (DOE) – (£30k year 1 OTE) : Guru Careers: We are seeking a bright A...

Resourcer / Junior Recruiter

£15-20k (DOE) + Benefits / Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a bright R...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits