Jeff Bezos: My plans for The Washington Post

In his first interview since the acquisition that stunned the media world, the Amazon founder tells Paul Farhi the three lessons of online retail success that he will bring to his newspaper

Jeffrey P Bezos, the next owner of The Washington Post, says he doesn’t have all the answers for what’s ailing the newspaper industry or for the financially challenged news organisation he is preparing to buy. But he says he’s eager to start asking questions and conducting experiments in the quest for a new “golden era” at The Post.

In his first interview since his $250m (£161m) purchase of The Post was announced in early August, Bezos said his basic approach to operating the business will be similar to the philosophy that has guided him in building Amazon.com from a start-up in 1995 to an internet colossus with $61bn in sales last year.

“We’ve had three big ideas at Amazon that we’ve stuck with for 18 years, and they’re the reason we’re successful: put the customer first. Invent. And be patient,” he said. “If you replace ‘customer’ with ‘reader’, that approach, that point of view, can be successful at The Post, too.”

Bezos, 49, spoke via phone from Seattle on Friday, four days before he was due to visit The Post for the first time since the announcement of its purchase from The Washington Post Co and the controlling Graham family. The sale, which shocked the news industry, is expected to close in October.

Bezos said his major contribution to the business will be in offering his “point of view” in discussions with the paper’s leadership about how the publication should evolve. He also said he provides “runway” – financial support over a lengthy period in which the management can experiment to find a profitable formula for delivering the news.

“If we figure out a new golden era at The Post … that will be due to the ingenuity and inventiveness and experimentation of the team at The Post,” he said. “I’ll be there with advice from a distance. If we solve that problem, I won’t deserve credit for it.”

During his visit this week, Bezos plans to meet the Post publisher Katharine Weymouth and top managers of the paper’s business and editorial operations. He will tour the newsroom in central Washington and the production plant in suburban Springfield, Virginia.

Wednesday’s visit will be bracketed by meetings with Post journalists –  first with about 20 reporters and editors in the morning and concluding with a meeting with the entire newsroom in the afternoon. The last time Bezos encountered a roomful of the paper’s journalists was in 1999 when he was the guest of Katharine Graham, the company’s late chairman, during a lunch interview with reporters and editors.

Based on his comments in the interview on Friday, Bezos appears unlikely to make any major decisions or pronouncements during his visit or propose any immediate changes. He said he is eager to meet and listen to managers and learn about the news organisation’s operations.

The Post is the first newspaper that Bezos has owned and will be operated as a stand-alone business, independent of Amazon. Bezos intends to keep his “day job” as chairman and chief executive of Amazon and will continue living in Seattle, where the company is based.

Bezos is one of the world’s richest men, with a net worth of around $24bn, based on the current value of his Amazon stock holdings. His deep pockets, technological savvy and reputation as a long-term strategic thinker were among the attributes that Post Co chief executive Donald E Graham cited in selling him The Post after 80 years under the Graham family’s control. Graham said he saw no alternative to continued investment, which would be difficult for a publicly traded company.

Graham and Weymouth, his niece, quietly put the business up for sale earlier this year after concluding that The Post required an owner capable of making sustained investment in it.

Bezos agreed: “It’s important for The Post not just to survive, but to grow,” he said. “The product of The Post is still great. The piece that’s missing is that it’s a challenged business. No business can continue to shrink. That can only go on for so long before irrelevancy sets in.”

In the interview, Bezos stressed that he has no immediate fixes for newspapers in general or for The Post, which is beset by web-based competition that has weakened its advertising base and steadily sapped its print readership.

“Don was helpful in interviews [following the purchase] when he said, ‘Mr Bezos is a businessman, not a magician,’” Bezos said. “I thanked him for that afterwards. In my experience, the way invention, innovation and change happen is [through] team effort. There’s no lone genius who figures it all out and sends down the magic formula. You study, you debate, you brainstorm and the answers start to emerge. It takes time. Nothing happens quickly in this mode. You develop theories and hypotheses, but you don’t know if readers will respond. You do as many experiments as rapidly as possible. ‘Quickly’ in my mind would be years.”

But Bezos suggested that the current model for newspapers in the internet era is deeply flawed: “The Post is famous for its investigative journalism,” he said. “It pours energy and investment and sweat and dollars into uncovering important stories. And then a bunch of websites summarise that [work] in about four minutes and readers can access that news for free. One question is, how do you make a living in that kind of environment? If you can’t, it’s difficult to put the right resources behind it…

“Even behind a paywall [digital subscription], websites can summarise your work and make it available for free. From a reader point of view, the reader has to ask, ‘Why should I pay you for all that journalistic effort when I can get it for free from another site?’”

Although he said he reads The Post, New York Times and Wall Street Journal regularly, Bezos didn’t grow up immersed in newspapers or dreaming of being involved with one. His “love affair,” he said, has always been with “the printed word in all its forms”. Amazon started as an online book retailer; it now publishes its own books. It has also moved into video production, competing with Netflix and others in streaming original programmes. Bezos’s wife, MacKenzie, is a published novelist.

The internet and Amazon’s launch of the Kindle ereader convinced him that the printed word doesn’t have to be on paper. “The key thing about a book is that you lose yourself in the author’s world,” Bezos said. “Great writers create an alternative world. It doesn’t matter if you enter that world via a digital or printed source.”

After Graham broached the idea of Bezos buying the paper earlier this year, Bezos said he spent two months contemplating what he could bring to the business. He was convinced that The Post was “an important institution”, and he said he was optimistic about its future. But he needed time to think over a third issue.

“I had to convince myself that I could bring something to the table,” he said. “I discussed this at great length with Don. I thought I could, because I could offer runway and some skill in technology and the internet and a point of view about long-term thinking, reader focus and the willingness to experiment.”

Bezos added: “I’m a genetic optimist. I’ve been told, ‘Jeff, you’re fooling yourself; the problem is unsolvable.’ But I don’t think so. It just takes a lot of time, patience and experimentation.”

Asked how he saw The Post – as a local, national or international news organisation – Bezos demurred. “That’s a question that needs to be answered in concert with the leadership team of The Post. Is it local? Or national? Is it something new?”

Whatever the mission, he said, The Post will have “readers at its centrepiece. I’m sceptical of any mission that has advertisers at its centrepiece. Whatever the mission is, it has news at its heart.”

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