The Real Reason Jeff Bezos Bought The Washington Post

Observers were surprised when the Amazon chief purchased the prestigious--and ailing--Washington institution, but history shows that sometimes buying a media property is like buying a boat.

Why did Jeff Bezos, Fast Company's September cover subject, buy the Washington Post? The same reason moguls have always bought media companies--for fun and status, not just for profit.

But there may be some other reasons as well. Like these:

Bezos and Meyer

An outrageously wealthy West Coaster buys the floundering Washington newspaper. He promises to keep its independence and asks for the support of dubious locals, amid worries about his political biases and the sheer influence of all that money.

Yesterday's news of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos's purchase of the Washington Post closely matches the circumstances of its previous sale, in 1933, to Eugene Meyer, patriarch of the Graham family and a multimillionaire entrepreneur. Meyer, his daughter Katharine Graham, and his son-in-law Philip Graham, overcame initial objections with their zealous devotion to the Post over 80 years. What will people be saying about Bezos's Post in eight decades? (That is, if it--and its whole medium--sticks around at all.)

Bezos and Murdoch

It's possible to read Bezos as a sort of Rupert Murdoch in reverse--opposite sides of the globe, opposite politics, and a resume proceeding in reverse order. Murdoch is a scion of an old newspaper family who has spent years railing against the insidious influence of the Internet on traditional media, while trying unsuccessfully to make his own headway into the technology industry, first with Myspace and now with Amplify, a classroom technology brand.

Bezos is the personification of that supposed insidious influence, spending most of his career as the sworn enemy of independent bookstores and traditional brick and mortar publishers, and now stepping back in time to own a newspaper that still prints ink on paper.

But Murdoch may be the last of a dying breed--a billionaire, like Steve Forbes, who actually made his money in the publishing industry. Bezos represents the future.

Bezos and Hughes and Diller

In some ways an old-media brand is merely part of the Willy Wonka toy box for today's silly-rich technology entrepreneurs.

Sure, you can have your education charity (Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg), your space startup (Sergey Brin/Larry Page, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Richard Branson), your miscellaneous wackadoodle side project (robot cars, lab-grown meat,). Each has its own rewards (though not always financial).

But sometimes for the man who has everything, a true sense of fulfillment comes only from the reflected gravitas of a venerable publication. Chris Hughes's purchase of The New Republic, and Barry Diller's (short-lived) revival of Newsweek, are but two recent examples.

These buyers talk about innovation: "I’m excited and optimistic about the opportunity for invention," Bezos said of his recent purchase. “I have been fascinated by this idea of how serious journalism would survive in this digital era,” Hughes told PandoDaily.

But let's face it. General interest publications that specialize in longform journalism by professional reporters are more like yachts than they are like businesses. Those of us in the quality-journalism biz can only hope for the sponsoring hand of an inspired tycoon--even if the sugar-daddy affair turns out to be brief. Sometimes, just as boat owners say, the happiest day of your life is the day you sell your publication. As Barry Diller recently noted, "it was a mistake...a fool's errand" to buy Newsweek. Let's hope Bezos doesn't think the same of his latest project.

[Image: Flickr user NS Newsflash]

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3 Comments

  • jen

    i agree. though I'm reminded of Jeffrey Archer's fictional novel "the fourth estate" on which 2 media mogul battle for control buying newspapers and all.