Jeff Bezos has financial motive to sustain Post’s local coverage

Robert McCartney
Columnist August 7, 2013

As you might have heard this week, we at The Post are excited about the prospect that our soon-to-be new owner, Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos, will rescue our business with bundles of money and world-class tech savvy.

But the Graham family’s surprise decision to sell the paper also aroused concerns in the region that the new owner, based in Seattle, would eventually weaken The Post’s longtime commitment to in-depth coverage of local affairs.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

It’s certainly a risk. For someone like Bezos, who built Amazon into a global Internet retail powerhouse, there has to be a temptation to focus primarily on a similar national and international mission for The Post.

Any resulting drop in intensity of local coverage would be a tremendous loss for our region — and not just for local columnists whose self-interest is rather blatantly at stake here.

To cite just a pair of examples: The Post’s commitment to local investigative reporting led to exposure of major scandals currently implicating the Democratic mayor of the District (campaign finance) and the Republican governor of Virginia (suspicious gifts and loans).

Opinion writer George F. Will, whose work first appeared in the Post nearly 40 years ago, says the Graham family's sale of the paper was "an act of great statesmanship." (The Washington Post)

“The Post is a national paper, yes, but its importance to local and regional coverage should not be underestimated by the new owner,” said Chuck Bean, executive director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Fortunately, there are plenty of reasons to believe that Bezos will stick to the Grahams’ longtime strategy of maintaining a strong focus on local affairs. Basically, it’s where the money is.

Bezos is certainly aware that the paper continues to reap a large majority of its revenue from the local market, especially via the print edition.

That’s partly because we, like other newspapers, make much more money from print ads than online ads. And only people in the D.C. area get the print edition.

Moreover, as Post Co. Chairman Don Graham stressed for years, why go head-to-head against bigger rivals in the national online market when we can milk our dominant position in what is arguably the world’s richest, most influential local market?

Even in the future, when everybody reads the paper in cyberspace, it should make good marketing sense to preserve (and improve) our connection with Washington area residents. Sure, the New York Times or Huffington Post can give you national coverage, but we’ll tell you about your commute and schools as well.

Bezos has said virtually nothing about his intentions. But his letter to Post employees seemed to emphasize local concerns.

“Our touchstone will be readers, understanding what they care about — government, local leaders, restaurant openings, scout troops, businesses, charities, governors, sports — and working backwards from there,” he wrote.

You can hardly give up on local coverage and still focus on restaurant openings and Scout troops. If that statement’s any guide, we can expect Bezos to increase attention to local coverage.

That would be a welcome switch. Budget pressures have forced The Post to trim reporting staff and space in the paper for local news in recent years even though we remain the region’s paper of record.

No matter what he does, Bezos’s arrival means a change in style at the top. There’s no getting around the fact that he lacks the Grahams’ ties to our area.

Don Graham once walked a police beat in the District, just for the sake of the experience. He’s a civic pillar in the classical style, quietly supporting local educational philanthropies and other virtuous institutions.

Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth, Don’s niece, grew up in Manhattan but has made a point of arranging lunches and otherwise reaching out to local politicians and regional leaders since she took over her current position.

She remains publisher but presumably with diminished clout once the sale is complete.

Bezos has already said he’s staying in Seattle to focus on what he called his “day job” running Amazon. It’s hard to imagine him showing the same level of interest as Don in who will be the next school superintendent in Prince George’s County.

D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), told the Washington Business Journal he was sorry to lose the personal connection with Post ownership.

“I’m very sad to see another local institution pass out of local hands. These local institutions — you knew the owners, saw them in restaurants, saw them at the ballgame,” Evans said.

That era is slipping away, but we needn’t necessarily fear what replaces it. If Bezos can do for local coverage online what he did for book buying — not to mention save our finances — then The Post’s connection with the regional audience could end up stronger than before.

I’m going on vacation. My column resumes Aug. 29.

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