Jeff Bezos to his future Washington Post journalists: Put the readers first

Jeffrey P. Bezos had a simple bit of advice for the staff of the newspaper he’ll soon own: Put readers, not advertisers, first. Don’t write to impress each other. And above all, “Don’t be boring.”

In a whirlwind series of meetings over two days, the Amazon.com billionaire charmed and disarmed rooms full of skeptical journalists with a relentlessly upbeat vision that evoked The Washington Post’s best traditions while promising to update them for a technologically advanced new era.

The Bezos plan for the news organization he has agreed to buy for $250 million centers on recreating the “daily ritual” of reading The Post as a bundle, not merely a series of individual stories. He was bullish about creating that experience on tablet computers, lukewarm about the prospects of doing so on the Web, and reassuring about the future of the old-fashioned newspaper itself — at least for the foreseeable future.

“People will buy a package,” Bezos said at one meeting of reporters and editors. “They will not pay for a story.”

Bezos seemed relaxed throughout two days of meetings, including a town-hall-style session in The Post’s community room before hundreds of journalists. He spoke without notes and joked often, punctuating some of his witticisms and self-deprecating comments with explosive laughter. He remained poised and good-humored from his perch on stage at the town-hall meeting despite fighting a balky sound system.

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)

Bezos also repeatedly emphasized the importance of investigative journalism and said he was prepared to stand up to pressure in reporting stories that government officials might seek to suppress. He also said his political views were already in line with those of The Post’s editorial page and would defer to its editor, Fred Hiatt, on many matters.

“I don’t feel the need to have an opinion on every issue,” Bezos said. “I’m sure I don’t know much about things like Syria and foreign entanglements. I’m happy to let the experts opine on that.”

Among those in attendance at the newsroom-wide meeting were former executive editors Ben Bradlee and Leonard Downie Jr., former managing editor Robert Kaiser and star investigative reporter Bob Woodward, lending the event an intergenerational bridge to the newspaper’s storied past. (Donald E. Graham, whose family controlled the newspaper for 80 years, was not there, but his niece, Post publisher Katharine Weymouth, was in attendance).

After 90 minutes of hearing Bezos lay out his thoughts, Bradlee, 92, counted himself among those who came away with a positive first impression. “I thought he was original,” he said. “That’s what impressed me the most.”

Throughout the day, Bezos returned to his idea of using tablets as a key vehicle for reaching a new generation of readers. While saying The Post’s print editions will remain for many years, he said tablet computers could offer readers a look and feel similar to a traditional printed paper.

“You have to figure out: How can we make the new thing? Because you have to acknowledge that the physical print business is in structural decline,” he said. “You can’t pretend that that’s not the case. You have to accept it and move forward. . . . 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.”

In comments that cheered the newsroom, Bezos said The Post needed to grow in both revenue and readers, though he declined to say whether The Post newsroom would grow. “What has been happening over the last several years can’t continue to happen,” he said. “If every year we cut the newsroom a little more and a little more and a little more, we know where that ends.”

Or as he put it repeatedly in meetings: “All businesses need to be forever young. . . . If your customer base ages with you as a company, you’re Woolworth’s.”

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

Bezos, who will remain in Seattle after his purchase of The Post closes in October, sidestepped a question about his future involvement in the Washington area. “I would never out-Don Don. Impossible,” he said, referring to Graham. “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.”

When asked to discuss Amazon’s motives in cutting off Web services for WikiLeaks in 2010, a time of intense government scrutiny of the anti-secrecy site’s disclosure of confidential military and diplomatic documents, Bezos said that the decision was made by unit managers and was not the result of government pressure. The company has previously said that WikiLeaks violated Amazon’s terms of service.

Yet Bezos made clear that though he believes in “American exceptionalism,” he sees The Post’s traditional watchdog roles as essential.

“We’re not perfect and our elected officials are not perfect and our regulators are not perfect,” he said in the newsroom question-and-answer session. “The credibility that an organization like The Washington Post brings is incredibly important.”

The reaction to the new boss from around The Post’s newsroom was widely favorable.

“What was most impressive was the combination of humility — that he doesn’t have all the answers yet — and the confidence that he will somehow figure it out,” said Marc Fisher, a veteran reporter and former Metro columnist.

Added Valerie Strauss, another Post veteran, who writes an education blog: “There was a lot he didn’t say, but what he did was well received. It’s going to be a very different place.”

Post reporters have already begun to refer to Bezos as “El Jeffe,” a play on the Spanish word for “chief” or “boss.”

He ended what amounted to a two-day charm offensive by recalling for the newsroom his own encounter, as a young boy in the 1970s, with the impact of Post journalism.

After apologizing for potentially embarrassing Woodward, Bezos said: “I watched the Watergate hearings on my elbow on the living-room floor next to my grandfather, who didn’t turn them off. And so these things make an impression.”

Steven Mufson contributed to this report.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
Craig Timberg is a national technology reporter for The Post.
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