“As someone – the only one? – who worked at the heart of both The Washington Post and Amazon.com, I’ve been asked in private emails, and in public places (over quiet beers), what I make of Jeff Bezos’ purchase of The Washington Post.
“Executive summary: Lots, and all of it good.”
Bill Curry was a Washington Post reporter from 1968 to 1980 and worked in Amazon.com’s PR department from 1998 to 2003. He posted his thoughts about the Bezos deal on an invite-only Facebook group for former Post employees. He gave me permission to share them with Romenesko readers. His post continues:
First, let me get this out of the way: I am arguably entitled to schadenfreude over Monday’s news, given the doomsday stories of yore by so many print reporters who wrote that people would never buy online, that Amazon would never turn a profit, that we were insolvent, that we’d go bankrupt, and that the stock bust of the dot coms proved, once and for all, that Amazon would never make it. Almost all of those reporters have since been shooed out of journalism, and the guy who was presiding over a supposedly doomed Amazon.com is now purchasing one of the highly regarded crown jewels of…those very reporters. I think this meets the dictionary definition of “irony.” But schadenfreude? Not at all. The stakes are too great.
Because Jeff Bezos may be the last exit before the end of independent, public-spirited journalism.
I declined to attend the 45th reunion of my graduating class from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism earlier this year; I was, quite frankly, weary of old newsroom bloats lamenting what’s become of the newspapers they knew and loved of, say, 45 years ago. Problem is, they don’t distinguish between newspapers and journalism – to them it’s the same — and that’s a mistake. It’s why they’re not the future of journalism, only its past. And why Jeff may be the future./CONTINUES
And this (finally) gets me to Jeff Bezos and my Expectation #1. Jeff will try to find a business model not for printed newspapers but for independent, public-spirited journalism. His DNA is digital; I wouldn’t expect him to relentlessly pursue a better method for applying black ink to dead trees or to be more efficient at the hiring of school kids to throw the morning paper into your bushes (sorry, David). Time and again, I heard him tell reporters: Amazon’s expertise is in technology, not in bricks-and-mortar -– the company would fail if it tried to open stores, just as traditional retailers flailed online. As in retailing, my bet is that Bezos will marry quality journalism with digital technology, embracing them fully on offense, not playing late-game, digital catch-up. The metric of his success will be online, not in ABC-audited circulation numbers.
Expectation #2. Take Jeff at his word: There will be experimentation. Further take him at his word that some of those experiments will be failures, possibly of Biblical proportions. But in the debris of collapse, Jeff will mine data, glean lessons and harvest new strategies. Popular thought is that Amazon failed in competing with eBay in auctions. We did. But, more significantly, Amazon evolved auctions into Z-shops, then, finally, into its successful third-party sellers, who use Amazon as a platform for selling their own “stuff.” And now they even hire Amazon to package and ship that stuff for them. Better than auctions.
Expectation #3. Plan on the unexpected; dare to be wrong. Jeff’s initial business plan for Amazon.com was that it would be a small, profitable online bookseller within five years. When online selling took off, to everyone’s amazement, Jeff made bets, big bets, on growth and on the future, to gain a beachhead in selling cars, pet supplies, wine, groceries, tools, drugstore items and whatever else. Many investments totaled several hundred million dollars; many losses totaled several hundred million dollars. But “in the fullness of time” (the only quote from Jeff you’ll read here), who would trade the Amazon of today for a small, profitable online bookseller?
Expectation #4. All forecasters, including me, will be wrong. Jeff, too. He is nimble, opportunistic and astonishingly perseverant and resourceful. He defies common knowledge, and he long ago grew weary of people telling him “it won’t work” or “you can’t do that.” He focuses on the data his efforts generate. And that’s why he was wrong, why Amazon is not, as he originally envisioned, a small, profitable online bookseller.
It’s also why The Washington Post will likely continue as a large, profitable producer and distributor of independent, public-spirited journalism. Regardless of whether there’s a printed newspaper. If I were still a reporter at The Post, my heart would soar like an eagle, to quote Old Lodge Skins in “Little Big Man.”
But if I were a pressman, I’d maybe be out looking.
Fasten your seatbelt.
* Four things Bezos can do with the Washington Post (mediadisruptus.com)
* Why is Bezos, and not Buffett, the Post’s new owner? (newyorker.com)
* The man who wants to talk newspapers with Buffett now eyes a Bezos meeting (sfgate.com)
* Earlier: Andrew Davis wants to help Buffett save the newspaper industry (jimromenesko.com)