Of Apollo, newspapers and ticking clocks

What do old Apollo program engines, newspapers and ticking clocks have in common?

Jeff Bezos.

Yes, Amazon.com founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos is buying The Washington Post for $250 million — a small fraction of the billionaire’s net worth. It is not a dream, although many in the news business may have pinched themselves this morning just to make sure. They may have even done so again, shortly before lunch. That’s how big this story is — or at least, was. The news cycle, after all, moves faster than it used to.

Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon on Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon on Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

The Amazon jokes are coming in at more of a trickle than the torrential downpour that followed Monday’s breaking news. A BuzzFeed list has been compiled, showing the sale price of The Post relative to other high-profile media, tech and pro sports deals. No story is complete in today’s news business without at least one listicle, after all.

In other words, the world is getting close to having wrapped its head around the idea that one of the most storied news publications is owned by a man who runs a company that sells everything from air mattresses and bunsen burners to yardsticks and zumba fitness DVDs and invests in such fresh-faced companies as Uber, Makerbot and Airbnb.

The nature of Bezos’s professional success and investments, which are being discussed ad nauseam, bring up two things: one predictable — the other perhaps not so much. First, there’s the deluge of Bezos-as-innovator headlines. In coverage of the sale, Bezos has been described as a “relentless business innovator“, “an innovator who reinvents old industries,” ”one of America’s great innovators,” and “definitely a capitalist and very much an innovator“. And that’s just coverage and commentary from the publication Bezos has agreed to buy.

A headline in The Seattle Times screams “Innovator meets icon,” and another on Bloomberg solemnly declares: “Bezos the Innovator Is What News Business Needs.” Another headline from the Globe and Mail in Canada declares, “Bezos and the Washington Post: Another chance to innovate.”

Even Bob Woodward, famous for, along with colleague Carl Bernstein, reporting one of the most groundbreaking stories in journalism history (for The Post, of course), praised Bezos as an “innovator” even as he said “we need a renaissance in reporting.”

The response to the news that the founder of Amazon has bought The Washington Post could be summed up as follows: Save us Jeff Bezos, you’re our only hope. Or, better yet: Use the innovation force, Jeff. 

This may sound glib on its face, but the mythology inherent to “Star Wars” is apt here. Because, talk of “a long time ago” brings us to the second thing: the most interesting and profound aspects of Bezos’s career, for me at least, are not the founding of Amazon, as transformational as the company has been, or his startup investments. It’s his willingness to go to the bottom of the Atlantic (not the publication, the ocean) and retrieve artifacts that NASA and the Smithsonian had no plans to claim. Couple that with the fact he did so because, as a 5-year old, he and many others were, as he writes, so inspired by NASA and he wanted to give the next generation a chance to experience that same inspiration. Then there’s the 10,000-year clock, which Bezos has said is meant to be “a symbol, an icon for long-term thinking.”

If the news business could use anyone, it’s someone who — more than being an innovator —  thinks in long timelines with a healthy dose of nostalgia. A healthy (okay, very healthy) bank account doesn’t hurt either.

Often, when talking about innovation, particularly in today’s Internet-accelerated world, speed is paramount. “Fail fast and fail often,” the saying goes. But real, transformative change isn’t always about speed (Amazon didn’t turn a profit until its ninth year). More often than not, it’s about patience — about tuning out the ticking clock, trudging into a swamp and diligently working away until you are ready to emerge better, stronger and faster than everyone else.

Even now, the headlines of the Bezos-Washington Post buy are fading, reduced from a blazing two-column holler to a mumbling blurb on the publication’s homepage. But the real work of innovation in news — the work that could take up a nice chunk of the ticks and tocks of that 10,000-year clock — is still only just beginning.

Good thing Bezos seems to like old things and long waits.

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