Will Bezos disrupt the news industry with the Washington Post?

analysis It would be out of character for the Amazon CEO to become a passive owner for such an iconic brand. Part of the intrigue may be in taking on another industry and seeing if he can shake it up in fundamental ways.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos at a Kindle launch event. James Martin/CNET

Jeff Bezos is using 1 percent of his personal fortune of about $25 billion to buy a newspaper . This is the Bezos of Amazon, who remade the retail industry over the last two decades and leads a company whose stock went from $80 to $300 over the last five years with nary a profit.

This bodes well for the staff of the venerable Washington Post, which suffered layoffs, buyouts, and a talent drain as the Internet disrupted the newspaper business. A Bezos regime could mean that the paper will be less concerned about profitability and more focused on becoming the biggest and most influential news media outlet on the planet.

It would be out of character for Bezos to become a passive owner for such an iconic brand. Part of the intrigue of owning The Washington Post is taking on another industry and seeing if he can shake it up in some fundamental ways.

In his memo to Washington Post employees, Bezos wrote that he "won't be leading The Washington Post day-to-day" and that the "paper's duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners." He added, "We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we'll work hard not to make mistakes. When we do, we will own up to them quickly and completely."

It sounds like an opening scene for season three of Aaron Sorkin's "Newsroom." Bezos is the new owner of Atlantis Cable News and together with anchor Will McAvoy and team, he will forego profits, reshape the news industry, and somehow induce Congress to actually do the work of the American people.

Don't expect the highest level of transparency, however. Bezos still won't say exactly how many Kindles have sold. But don't expect him to promote The Washington Post like he does the Kindle on the Amazon site or offer free shipping print to subscribers. The Washington Post is his personal hobby horse and not financially related to Amazon, as is the online publication Business Insider, in which he invested $5 million last year.

Closer to reality is that Bezos admires The Washington Post and Donald Graham, the CEO of The Washington Post Co. In his memo, he talked about the courage of The Washington Post in following a story, no matter the cost. Bezos has the capability to redefine the meaning of "no matter the cost" upward for news organizations.

Bezos isn't taking on The Washington Post as a charity case or as a platform to satisfy political ambitions. It doesn't appear that he has much of a political agenda, beyond "following the truth wherever it leads," which is refreshing but it often depends on whose "truth." He has been more of a background player politically, with the exception of favoring gay marriage and federal legislation that would require online companies like Amazon to collect and pay sales tax to states. The Amazon CEO's political contributions have been spread across Democrats and Republicans.

Bezos must have some ideas for returning the paper that came to national prominence with the Watergate story to its former glory. In his memo to the staff, he wrote about the need to invent and experiment, which isn't news to The Washington Post:

There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy. We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment. Our touchstone will be readers, understanding what they care about -- government, local leaders, restaurant openings, scout troops, businesses, charities, governors, sports -- and working backwards from there. I'm excited and optimistic about the opportunity for invention.

However, The Washington Post has never had someone like Bezos in its corner. As he has proven with Amazon, he is a disrupter and fierce competitor with a huge checkbook who is willing to experiment and take risks.

Amazon's business is primarily about satisfying the customer with content and service, which isn't that much different from a news media organization. As Bezos says, he likes to make money when people use his devices -- acquire and consume the content and goods -- not when they buy them. Now he has a stake in helping The Washington Post become more successful against a legion of competitors by investing in its print, online, and video content and services. Whether The Washington Post can find the truth, in terms of delivering more of the stories, images, and services that compel readers and advertisers to pay serious attention, has yet to be written.

 

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