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.”
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.”