As the American newspaper business began its red-ink slide in the late 2000s, I fully expected a billionaire to rescue the financially struggling Washington Post. But I never thought its savior would be Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who purchased the paper today for $250 million.
I put my money on Michael R. Bloomberg’s money, in a July 2012 column titled “How Bloomberg can still run Washington” because he seemed like such a logical buyer. Unlike Bezos, Bloomberg already owned a media empire comprised of a news service, a cable channel, a weekly magazine, and more. Unlike Bezos, Bloomberg had toyed in semi-public with the idea of buying either the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or the Financial Times. Unlike the 49-year-old Bezos, who has been building spaceships and an eternal clock with his mad money, the aging (71 years old) Bloomberg seemed to need one last great gesture in his career before called to paradise. He wasn’t ever going to be president, a campaign he had gamed out. As for running the World Bank, a job Bloomberg was reportedly shopped to fill, well, that would be a step down from Emperor of New York City.
My matchmaking ploy failed. Washington Post Co. CEO Donald E. Graham, whose family owns a controlling interest in the company that owns the paper, humorously rebuffed my proposal in a tart email. Bloomberg didn’t knock on my door offering to pay me a finder’s fee. My idea was completely forgotten — even by me! — until today.
How could I have missed Bezos as a candidate for ownership?
Bezos has the means. He is worth $25.2 billion to Michael Bloomberg’s $27 billion. Buying and operating the money-losing Post – its newspaper division lost $49.3 million in the first six months of this year — wouldn’t scare him. To paraphrase Charles Foster Kane, Bezos could absorb $100 million a year losses for 250 years before going broke. Bezos’s politics aren’t that different from Graham’s. To cherry-pick a conceit from my summer 2012 column, Graham and Bloomberg are “beyondists,” David Brooks’s clever term for people whose politics appear to be centrist but strive to occupy a political space beyond left and right. Bezos’s non-doctrinaire, fluid politics make him a kind of West Coast beyondist, and as such an acceptable owner for Graham, who has resisted political labeling throughout his career. Although the libertarian movement claims Bezos as one of its own and he runs his company as free of government influence as he can, the political donations made by the Amazon PAC mark Bezos as a very practical beyondist: He contributes to both parties almost equally.
In acquiring the Washington Post, Bezos enters a business that is not radically different from the ones he already owns. Reporters and editors like to think their literary arts are central to newspapering. But it’s better to think of a newspaper as a coordination problem that manufacturing and distribution solves daily: Copy, art, and advertising is beamed from newsroom to printing plant, bundled newspapers flow from the plant to trucks, are transferred to carriers, and are delivered to your front door. Nobody knows more about deadline deliveries and distribution than Bezos’s Amazon, which has spoiled several nations with its reliable service. I can’t imagine what plans Bezos has for the print edition of the paper — if I did, I’d be worth $25.2 billion — but I’m confident that he will maximize the value of the existing Post delivery system in novel ways. It would not surprise me to see him use the Post network of trucks and carriers to enter the local delivery business as a pilot project. Obviously, he’s learned a lot from same-day delivery he could share with the paper.