Open letter to Jeff Bezos

Dear Jeff,

Welcome to The Post. I have read that the $250 million you paid for this newspaper is roughly 1 percent of your net worth, making it about as risky and consequential a purchase for you as a used 2003 Honda Civic might be for me. Still, I hope and strongly suspect you will not see it as a plaything, or, to extend the already shaky metaphor, a vehicle for promoting your bigger enterprises. I am presuming that despite the chump-change numbers, this is a big deal for you, and that you plan to roll up your sleeves and be the guy who finds a way to make conventional journalism succeed financially. I’d like to offer some advice.

Gallery

For Bezos, a demanding style behind that patient approach

For Bezos, a demanding style behind that patient approach

One thing the Amazon chief and incoming owner of The Post has little patience for? Hoop-jumping.

The Post sale: From unthinkable choice to the clearest option

The Post sale: From unthinkable choice to the clearest option

How the decision to sell the heralded newspaper quickly became reality after it was proposed late last year.

After Post sale, Graham is likely to continue to diversify company

After Post sale, Graham is likely to continue to diversify company

Company owns various businesses that have little in common.

Amazon’s Washington presence surges along with its business

Amazon’s Washington presence surges along with its business

The Internet giant has sharply boosted its lobbying efforts to shape policy on taxes and other issues.

With The Washington Post sold, will New York Times be next?

With The Washington Post sold, will New York Times be next?

Family that owns the paper insists it’s not selling. That was unthinkable for The Post, too. Until it happened.

An open letter to Jeff Bezos

An open letter to Jeff Bezos

Welcome to The Post. I hope you have a clear vision of where to take this remarkable enterprise.

An Amazon-style model could reboot the newspaper industry

An Amazon-style model could reboot the newspaper industry

Analysts say technology perfected by the online retailer could give Post readers personalized news feeds.

Why Bezos usually buys things

Why Bezos usually buys things

Amazon has always expanded by accretion, but its purchases have very different fates.

Details of Bezos deal to buy Post

Details of Bezos deal to buy Post

The $250 million purchase price is richer than many of those received by other legacy print media properties in recent years.

Bezos is known for his patience

Bezos is known for his patience

His willingness to pursue a long-term vision was critical to the rise and persistence of Amazon.

Back in 1982, when I was an editor at Tropic, the Miami Herald’s Sunday magazine, the publisher asked us to run a story on our cover about the winners of The Silver Knight award, which was given out every year at a gala to the most promising high school seniors in the Miami area. The Silver Knights were a fine and noble enterprise, but the event was run and financed by Knight-Ridder, the corporate owners of The Miami Herald; Herald stories about the Silver Knight awards were inevitably uncritical, nakedly celebratory, and drenched in self-promotion. We at Tropic declined to run the story of the awards on the grounds that we were a small magazine trying to establish a feisty, pugnacious identity, and being a corporate suckup toady lickspittle didn’t fit in with our plans. The publisher glowered, muttered something about insubordination, and steered the story to another, less visible section of the paper. We went unpunished.

Wikipedia tells me that one of the Silver Knight winners that year was little Jeffrey Bezos of Miami Palmetto High School. Haha.

You and I briefly crossed paths as younger men, and I dissed you. I guess it’s clear who won that race.

Here’s the thing: We were right to decline that story, Jeff, but, more to the point, our publisher was wise to LET us decline. In the next 10 years, freed to robustly experiment with an outsize personality, Tropic would develop a fanatic following in Miami, and our writers and photographers would win two Pulitzers and be finalists for two more. That happened because the people above us trusted us, if grudgingly, and -- more important -- had our backs.

I was telling this tale of tolerated impertinence to Howard Simons, the brilliant newspaper editor at the Washington Post, shortly before he died of cancer in 1990. He smiled and said that it embodied his most important principle as a newspaper manager: “Kick up, kiss down.” Aggravate your bosses, but make the people below you love and respect you. Katharine Graham and Don Graham were brilliant at this -- they must have given their board of directors fits, because during the great years they chose aggressive journalism over pennypinching every time -- and we loved them for it. It’s an irreplaceable advantage, loyalty drawn from affection and respect.

My father once told me that he felt grief-stricken at the sudden death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1945, but not fear that the country was now in the hands of some obscure haberdasher named Truman. My father knew only one thing about Truman, really -- that in failing health, and in the middle of a world war, F.D.R. had chosen him, and so Truman must be a good man. That was enough for my father.

I think I speak for more than myself when I say that the main reason I have high hopes for your stewardship is that Don Graham said it was the right thing for the paper. He said you are the right guy. That was enough for me.

“Great” is an overused term, and sports has rendered it almost meaningless, so I won’t say you have just bought a “great” newspaper. I’m not even sure you’ve bought a “newspaper” in any understood sense. You have bought a place filled with enormously talented and dedicated journalists who are, at the moment, terrified at the prospect of change we don’t really understand. We’ve already lost some fine people to that terror.

You are obviously a good businessman, and you are said to be a visionary. I hope you have a clear vision of where to take this remarkable enterprise. As you go there, please remember to kick up, and kiss down.

And sorry about the Silver Knight. But we were right.

 
Read what others are saying

    Dealing with spring weeds

    A year to replant the rosemary