The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jeff Bezos is buying The Washington Post. Here’s what that means.

It's Jeff Bezos's newspaper now. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Well, here's a story we didn't expect to be writing today.

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is buying The Washington Post. He's paying $250 million, of his personal funds (we aren't becoming part of Amazon, in other words, but rather employees of a stand-alone company that Bezos owns).

First things first: Nothing about Wonkblog changes, so far as we know. We'll be here tomorrow, and the next day, and after the transaction closes in around 60 days, bringing you the latest news and analysis of everything that matters in the worlds of domestic and economic policy.

But what does the deal mean for the future of media? That has a more interesting answer.

To be part of a publicly-traded company, as the Washington Post newspaper has been since 1971, has always been something of an uncomfortable fit for media companies. Media is a fickle business, offering its owners both responsibilities and rewards that are not easily captured by the fast-moving traders of Wall Street. For the Post Co. and other publicly traded newspaper companies, though, it was a happy enough match for decades, as monopoly newspapers spun off vast profits that started to peter out sometime around the middle of the last decade.

Since then to publish the news and make money from doing it is a challenge that many have tried, and few have mastered. Whether Sam Zell buying the Tribune Co. or Sidney Harman and then Barry Diller with Newsweek, the struggles exceed the success stories.

The economics of news have shifted fundamentally. At one time, the great constraint was the physical ability to get information into the hands of readers. If you were a dominant big-city newspaper, you had the printing presses and the distribution network to present a package of information and advertising on every front lawn in town every morning. That was a remarkable power. It had enormous barriers to entry--a competitor couldn't swoop in and replicate it easily. And it meant that every department store wanting to advertise a sale, every car dealer looking to move cars, and every employer looking to hire a new accountant had to place ads.

Media economics have, of course reversed. Now the great constraint is not on the ability to deliver information, but on the capacity of readers to consume it. Every media organization competes with every other one, and the cost of information is something very nearly free.

The winners in this new world of media economics, if there are any, will be those who are willing to take big financial risks, and endure the possibility that those risks won't pay off for years, if ever. It is the kind of patience that public companies that report earnings every three months do not have.

Jeff Bezos, with an estimated $25 billion net worth, can afford to be patient, and has demonstrated it year after year in his stewardship of Amazon, which reports terrible profit numbers as it plows money into investing for the future. We at the Washington Post can only hope that has the same inclination, and entrepreneurial juice, as he becomes our boss.

This was not a day any of us on the staff of the Washington Post saw coming. But it is also a shift into a form of ownership that makes a lot of sense given the realities of the business we find ourselves in. I anticipate that large quantities of brown liquor will consumed at the Post Pub tonight. But I also anticipate that the staff will come in tomorrow morning, perhaps a bit groggier than usual, and go back to work trying to make the news business work in this complicated, trying media age.

Related stories:

Post to be sold to Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos on Post purchase

Klein: First thoughts on the sale

Journalism needs a business model. Can Jeff Bezos find one?

What happened when Jeff Bezos invested in Business Insider? More journalism.