With Jeff Bezos set to take over The Washington Post, the big question is: Can he arrest its decline and deliver an economic model for the rest of the industry?
The 49-year-old founder of Amazon could give the storied newspaper a chance to make the transition to the digital age, but it remains unclear whether he has a winning formula for ailing metropolitan daily newspapers.
Bezos, who agreed in August to buy the Post for $250 million and take it private, is expected to close the deal sometime in early October, though no official date has been disclosed.
He has said little about his plans for the 136-year-old daily, which has long been seen as among the most influential in the United States, famous for its trailblazing coverage of the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover up which led to the resignation of president Richard Nixon in 1974.
Bezos said in August that he had “no map” for the Post but in a recent interview with CNN he called the newspaper “an important institution,” and remarked that he was “optimistic about its future.”
“It’s a personal investment. I’m hopeful that I can help from a distance in part by providing runway for them to do a series of experiments, in part through bringing some of the philosophy that we have used at Amazon to the Post,” he said.
‘Long and patient view’
Some say Bezos, a pioneer in online retailing, could revitalize a traditional business where recent years have seen jobs being slashed amid sinking revenues as news and advertising moves to the Internet.
“He is willing to take a long and patient view… to let things roll without worrying about profitability,” said Alan Mutter, a Silicon valley-based media consultant and former Chicago newspaper editor.
“He’s obviously a very talented businessman and has to be counted as one of the true digital natives,” who could offer new ideas.
“He can look at the problems dispassionately. He didn’t go to journalism school. He did not sell ads. Most of the people in the business have been in the newspaper business, they might not be out-of-the box thinkers.”
But Peter Copeland, a former editor and executive for the EW Scripps newspaper group and now a media consultant, cautioned against dramatic change, noting that the Post’s print circulation still generates significant revenues, though less than previously.
“I don’t think it would be wise to blow up The Washington Post,” he told AFP.
“It has a great brand. And this is a place where people really care about news.”
Copeland said the Post is among the few US dailies that can draw a wide online audience outside its home market, and this gives it some flexibility.
But Bezos may also help bring some hard-nosed business skills to the newspaper, long-owned by the Graham family.
“Because the Post was run by a family, a caring family, it has been often run like a family,” Copeland said.
“It’s still a giant organization and it needs to be resized for the amount of revenue they have now.”
Daily circulation is estimated at 447,700, down from over 800,000 two decades ago. In the most recent quarter, the newspaper lost $49 million, mostly from pension obligations. These were effectively subsidized by the other Washington Post Co. units, mainly in television and education.
‘In for the right reasons’
Dan Kennedy, a professor of journalism at Northeastern University who is writing a book on changes in the newspaper industry, said he is encouraged that Bezos is taking the risk.
“He seems to be in for the right reasons,” Kennedy said.
“He sees it as a civic trust, and wants to run it as a good newspaper, and maybe even expand it,” noting that that Bezos “is really our leading digital visionary when it comes to the consumer economy.”
“I’m totally optimistic that he has put himself in a position to do something about this terrible calamity that has affected paid journalism,” Kennedy added, noting the lasting lore of Watergate in American journalist.
“So many people in my generation went into journalism because of ‘All The President’s Men,’” he said, referring to the book and film about the Post’s role in the Watergate scandal.
“Everybody wanted to be Woodward and Bernstein. People thought (actor) Jason Robards was the Post’s editor.”
Beyond content and revenue, Bezos will have one issue he has not faced at Amazon: labor unions. His purchase of the Post is expected to close with the Newspaper Guild renegotiating a contract that expired in July.
Bezos has pledged to keep salaries steady for one year. Guild unit co-chair Fredrick Kunkle has said members are taking a wait-and-see attitude.
“There are a lot of stories about Bezos being hostile to unions,” Kunkle said, but noting he felt “hopeful” about the change in ownership.