A few days after the New York Times sold the Boston Globe for a pittance–it had bought it for $1.1 billion, sold it for $71 million–Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post for another pittance, $250 million. He bought it personally, not as Amazon, though it’s impossible to imagine a separation of the two in the long run. After a brief grace period he’ll get rid of the publisher and will begin getting rid of key executives. The Post will be his experiment of remaking print journalism in Kindle’s image. He “promises not just an ownership change for the 135-year-old institution,” the Post writes today, “but a potential transformation of the fusty mechanics of the newspaper business.
Bezos is a libertarian and a man of words, in the sense that his business is largely made of words: books, magazines, print. He’s branched out to diapers and dish detergent, but on the shrink’s couch the first think we say when we hear Amazon is books, not shoes. Unlike, say, the sort of vulgar ad men who’ve taken over most newspapers since the 1990s (precipitating their decline in value and respect), slicking up newsprint with more hair gel than ink, Bezos knows the value of a sentence. He’s shown healthy contempt for the forces of the market, which are equal parts poison and speed to innovation.
He likes the long view. Amazon took nine years to turn a profit, but it’s revolutionized the way we shop. He’s taking the newspaper private, shielding it from the tyrannies of shareholders, which should give him more comfortable room to experiment. To re-kindle what’s become a moribund, hellishly boring industry: most newspapers these days are like reruns of 1970s sitcoms. They’re chained to formulas, set pieces, journalism-seminar style. (The St. Petersburg Times ran a pretty interesting magazine-type piece over the weekend about a Methodist church–the only Christian churches doing anything worth talking about anymore, incidentally–taking in sex offenders. But it was written in that affected trick of alternating narratives editors should have put to bed years ago.)
It’d be nice if Bezos took the Post’s editorial page off the reactionary column, too. Since the early 2000s the Post has tended to be as jingoistic as John McCain on his crabbiest days. The same day the Bezos buy was announced, the Post ran an editorial pining for the old days of the “war on terror.” “Mr. Obama,” the paper writes, “is right to worry about the corrosive effect, for example on civil liberties, of perpetual war. But like all wars, this one will end only if one party is defeated or both agree to lay down their weapons.” The editorial goes as far as comparing Obama’s approach to Clinton’s in the 1990s. That’s to say: the Bush years were better. There you go. Intellect in the service of barbaric amnesia. It’s as if the Bush years’ cataclysms–which the Post’s editorial page did so much to fuel–never happened.
Bezos has work to do. Maybe we can convince him to take over the News-Journal next. Every empire-builder needs a vacation paper.
Here’s a good summation of the deal’s meaning from the Economist: