Bezos courts Washington Post editors, reporters

September 4, 2013

The Washington Post’s new owner, Jeffrey P. Bezos, long wary of journalists, courted the paper’s editors and reporters in a series of meetings Wednesday, saying that he is optimistic about the future of journalism and wants to create a “daily ritual bundle” that would appeal to a variety of readers.

The Amazon.com founder and chief executive, who has agreed to purchase The Post for $250 million, said he plans to invest in the paper and rejected the idea that news organizations could cut their way to profitability or stability, or attract advertisers without adding readers.

To an organization weary from more than a decade of newsroom buyouts and cutbacks, Bezos, when asked how he would define success, replied: growth. Continuing to contract by cutting the staff would lead to extinction, he said, “or, at best, irrelevance.” He told a group of reporters and editors Wednesday morning that “making money isn’t enough. It also has to be growing.”

“What has been happening over the last few years can’t continue to happen,” Bezos said.

“All businesses need to be young forever. If your customer base ages with you, you’re Woolworth’s,” added Bezos, who created the world’s leading online retailer. “The number one rule has to be: Don’t be boring.”

Jeff Bezos, the Internet mogul and Amazon.com founder, recently purchased The Washington Post in a historic shift for the newspaper. (Nicki DeMarco and Emi Kolawole/The Washington Post)

He mentioned two pieces from this week’s paper that he found particularly compelling: an obituary of the stereotype-defying, widely-known bouncer/doorman at the popular 9:30 Club and the “9 questions about Syria” primer that ran initially online and later in print.

Bezos seemed relaxed, said several people who attended the meetings. He didn’t prepare any remarks. He gave long, thoughtful, nuanced answers to the questions, punctuated with a “dramatic, forward-leaning laugh,” as one attendee put it. Many of the people who attended the morning meeting said they were relieved and reassured by his answers. In the larger afternoon session, Bezos proved equally deft at projecting a combination of humility, self-confidence and purpose.

“When this was first announced, I got thousands of e-mails, outpourings of support and encouragement,” Bezos said later at a standing room only afternoon meeting with the entire staff, “and that is not normal. If I had purchased a snack food company I would not have gotten those e-mails. …The only reason that happens is that people care.”

He said the newspaper faced two business problems: the Rewrite Problem and the Debundling Problem.

In the former, the newspaper could spend weeks or months on a project that a Web site like the Huffington Post could rewrite “in 17 minutes.”

In the latter, whereas people once bought a paper and read and passed sections of it around, the Web has debundled the paper so that people can read one story and move on to a different site.

“We can’t have people swooping in to read one article,” he said, adding that the paper should not be seeking to bolster hits from such one-time casual readers. “What you can’t do is go for the lowest common denominator, because then what you have is mediocrity.”

He repeatedly said that the success of The Post depends on its ability to draw readers into a “daily ritual habit” of reading across a collection of different topics — and paying for it. “People will buy a package,” Bezos said, “they will not pay for a story.”

The Post introduced a digital subscription plan in July, although many types of readers such as students, government employees and members of the military do not need to pay for access.

Bezos added that he was confident that old media like The Post could master the new technology landscape. “There are arenas where the transformation was done by the incumbents,” he said, citing the example of Amazon, which dominated the sale of print books and later adapted to the sale of e-books.

He postulated that the tablet could offer a way of rebundling the newspaper, though he said he was “less optimistic” about a Web-based product becoming profitable. “I’m convinced that the reach of the tablet will give us a bigger paying audience.”

“This is so unexplored, and nobody — this code has not been cracked,” he said. “But there are so many degrees of freedom, knobs that can be turned and things we can experiment with that I’m confident there’s something we can find that readers love and will be engaged with — and that we can charge for.”

Bezos’ acquisition of The Post took the media industry by surprise. Bezos dealt with Nancy B. Peretsman, a managing director at Allen & Co., who contacted him on behalf of Donald Graham, the chief executive of The Washington Post Co., about buying the paper. He decided to buy the newspaper on the basis of what he called “three gates.”

He first considered whether The Post remained an important institution, which he said was clearly true.

Second, he weighed whether he could still be optimistic about its future, and he said his “genetic optimism” combined with his conclusion that The Post still retained an extremely talented staff of journalists led him to conclude that the company could be successful.

The third “gate,” he said, was whether he could personally make a difference, and he said he could because of lessons he has learned inventing Amazon.com, turning it into a disruptive force in an existing industry and creating packages or bundles that customers value.

He urged the paper’s journalists to think about “how are we going to be different. We should think big about what is the next golden age of The Washington Post.” He said that he plans to invest in the paper and that some areas needed to expand and others to contract.

In the afternoon, Robert Kaiser, who joined the paper six months before Bezos was born, asked him what “a new golden era” would look like for a paper that once had many more staffers and foreign and domestic bureaus.

“How many foreign bureaus in a golden era? I don’t know,” Bezos said. “We can’t go backwards. We also can’t think small. We need to think big and lean into the future. The death knell for any enterprise is to glorify the past no matter how good it was, especially for an institution like the Washington Post which has such a hallowed past.” He said “it is super clear to me already that people are eager for a golden era… What it means we still need to figure out.”

He said that the print edition of the paper remains “very, very important” both to readers and the business model and that “the physical paper can be optimized for the local audience.”

He said that if he has both the print and a tablet edition in front of him, he would still choose the print edition because it is “an elegant product that has evolved over decades.” Digital editions of newspapers, meanwhile, are still adapting to the new ways in which people look for information.

He said that the content of the newspaper in the digital age should “be a blend of human judgment and metrics,” just as The Post has combined a wide range of features from comics to international news.

“Should we stop doing investigative journalism because it’s unrewarding and other people copy it? Should we stop?” Bezos said. “No, we have to figure out how to get back to that bundle, have to find things people will pay for. It’s not that they don’t want it. They say, ‘I’m not sure I want to pay for it,’ but they do want it.”

Many questions in the full staff meeting dealt with editorial as well as business issues. Bezos said he had no desire to change the staff of the editorial page even though editorial page editor Fred Hiatt offered to step aside.

“I don’t associate with any party,” he said. “I do have things I care about and some of those are public, like gay marriage.” But, he said, “I don’t feel the need to have an opinion on every issue.” He added, “I’m very happy to let the folks at the Post opine on those issues. I see no reason to change what we’re doing.”

He also said that reporters should “feel free to cover Amazon any way you want, feel free to cover Jeff Bezos any way you want.” He said he has felt in general that he and Amazon had been covered fairly.

Asked about his interest in buying a newspaper and his practice of not commenting for most news stories, Bezos said, “the most powerful minds can hold powerful inconsistencies.” He said he often declines to comment because he doesn’t want his competition to know about his plans. “We’re not as silent or secretive as we’re sometimes portrayed,” he said, while conceding that “we are on the quiet side.”

“I will never out-Don Don. Impossible,” he said, referring to Don Graham in response to a question about what he would bring to the Washington community. “I will have to do this as Jeff and it’s going to be different for so many reasons, and one of them is that I’m going to be in Seattle.”

Asked whether he regards The Post as simply an interesting business problem, Bezos recalled lying on the living room floor next to his grandfather watching the Watergate hearings. “I do feel that newspapers and in particular the Washington Post are important components of free societies.”

He said he considers himself “a kind of American exceptionalist” and believes “this is a good country.” But he added that “our elected officials are not perfect. Our regulators are not perfect.”

“I guess somebody could argue..[that] the Washington Post and New York Times are not as important as they used to be because we have Wikileaks. I don’t buy that,” he said. “There are a whole class of things that wouldn’t be found out that way. The credibility that an organization like the Washington Post brings is important. It would be doing a disservice to this organization for my motivations to be just business curiosity.”

Steven Mufson covers energy and other financial news.
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