Jeff Bezos and his journalists
I’m a huge admirer of Jeff Bezos, and the way in which he has managed to dodge the biggest pitfall facing the managers of public companies: rather than maximize short-term profits, he instead has concentrated — with enormous success — on building long-term value. Amazon is now worth about $140 billion, or more than 500 Washington Posts — more, indeed, than the combined valuation of every single newspaper in the world, put together.
Many of those newspapers, including the Washington Post, were once public companies, with stock-market listings and quarterly profit reports and the like; historically they had very fat margins, and as a result of those fat margins they had substantial stock-market valuations. When those margins imploded, taking the newspapers’ profits with them, the papers were left with almost no value: the Boston Globe was sold for essentially a negative sum, once pension obligations are taken into account, while the Washington Post was sold for the price of a nice Cézanne. Meanwhile, if Amazon were to start losing money for a few quarters, few people would blink an eye; the value of the company certainly wouldn’t plunge to less than a billion dollars.
On the face of it, then, the acquisition of the Washington Post by Jeff Bezos is very good news. If newspapers were ever suited to public stock-market listings, they’re not any more; private ownership, especially ownership by an individual benign billionaire, is a much better model for all concerned. Bezos is not the kind of man who worries about losing a few million dollars here or there: he has his eye on building long-term value and relevance, which is exactly how the best newspaper owners behave. After the Graham family bought the Washington Post in 1933, for instance, it took 20 years before the paper started making real money. Jeff Bezos, who has spent some $42 million building a clock designed to last 10,000 years, has exactly the amount of patience, and money, that a modern newspaper owner needs.
What Bezos lacks, I fear, is the kind of personal talent-management skills common to most great publishers. There’s a virtuous cycle to successful publishers: as you grow in size and prestige, both advertisers and readers flock to you, you start making lots of money, which in turn allows you to hire the best writers and editors and art directors, and to spend big money on fast, effective distribution. Those people, in turn, put out a first-rate product which is very difficult to compete with.
Until, of course, the internet comes along, and everything fragments into a million tiny pieces.
If Bezos were to look at the most successful large-scale publishing operations of the past few decades, he would see a lot of waste. Some publishers, like Condé Nast or the Time Inc of old, turned lavish profligacy into something of an artform; newer entrants into the scene, such as Bloomberg, are no slouches on that front either. Meanwhile, as journalists of all stripes find themselves converging on the same digital platforms, print journalists are increasingly direct peers and competitors of their TV counterparts, where money has always been much more abundant.
Online, it’s all too easy for such operations to be disrupted by lean and efficient upstarts. Bezos’s previous investment in the journalism space was in Business Insider, one such operation: the journalists there work very hard, in a no-slack, no-waste environment, putting out vastly more content per person than any print or TV operation would ever dream of. At places like the Huffington Post, or Gawker, or Business Insider, the goals are clearly articulated, and usually revolve around pageviews or unique visitors or some such metric. And while such outfits certainly can and do spend a lot of time working on projects which might not pay off in a narrow traffic sense, they generally do so consciously, deliberately, as a tactical departure from the hyper-efficient default mode.
At a large newspaper, the default mode cannot be hyper-efficient; the papers which have tried, which have modeled themselves on digital startups, have generally failed. A large and valuable franchise like the Washington Post generally improves the more slack there is in the system. If you have enough money that you can hire stars, treat them generously, and then leave them alone to do their thing, then they will ultimately reward you with first-rate (and very expensive) content. Your job, then, is to find a way to monetize that content.
Amazon, by contrast, is all about efficiency. It has a relatively small number of executives at its headquarters, who are paid overwhelmingly in stock; if the stock does well, they do well. It also employs, mostly indirectly, thousands of workers in warehouses around the world, picking and packaging the goods it sells; those workers are treated badly, and enjoy effectively zero slack in their working lives. What Amazon doesn’t have is paternalism, or a culture which in any way tolerates any unnecessary increase in labor costs. Its employees are cogs in the corporate machine, and they are expected to work as efficiently as possible.
The Grahams (or the Sulzbergers, or the Newhouses, or the Chandlers, or the Bancrofts) never thought of their journalists and editors that way. And the fact is that while you can achieve better profits by cutting here and maximizing there, you can never achieve long-term greatness that way. Greatness emerges mysteriously from the slack in the system, from source lunches and newsroom cross-pollination and expensive editorial whims. It emerges, ultimately, from the ability to give people time and space and money, in the certain knowledge that most of that time and space and money will end up being wasted, and embracing that waste as a good and ultimately necessary thing.
The Washington Post has not had the luxury of being able to waste time and space and money, not in many years — and as a result it is no longer a great newspaper. Maybe no newspaper can ever be great again, in that sense: the economics just don’t support it any more. But the fact is that Jeff Bezos is now an employer of journalists, and as such he is in charge of hiring and firing and paying a group of employees quite unlike any he has hired in the past. They’re not always rational, they’re not always efficient, and as a group they tend towards the skeptical and cantankerous. On top of that, they’re not entirely motivated by money.
Happy proprietors tend to like journalists — they admire what they do, and how they think. (Exhibit A: David Bradley, at Atlantic Media.) Jeff Bezos, I fear, is not going to be a happy proprietor. He’s going to keep himself occupied thousands of miles away from where his journalists will be working; he’s not going to get to know them on a personal level; he’s certainly not going to enjoy gossip-fueled lunches at the Four Seasons with Tina Brown or Arianna Huffington. If Ezra Klein is ever tempted to take Wonkblog to richer shores, or just to quit altogether to concentrate on a television career, it’s hard to imagine Bezos offering him a glass of whisky and promising to make whatever changes would be necessary to get him to stay.
To put it another way: the best proprietors are only happy when their journalists are happy. They throw resources at those journalists, and then the journalists smile, in their grumbly way, and waste a bunch of what they’ve been given, and ultimately produce wonderful content, which the proprietor can then turn around and monetize in one way or another. Bezos isn’t going to be like that, or at least I don’t think he will be. Still, I hope I’m wrong. Because if he does take an avuncular interest in whatever makes his journalists happy, then a man with his skills, and his resources, could yet turn out to be one of the most interesting and successful newspaper proprietors of all time.