The Washington Post's biggest story this afternoon was about The Washington Post: the paper has been sold to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. The paper's publisher, Katharine Weymouth, as well as editor Marty Baron, will remain in their roles in leading the paper.
One of the factors that convinced CEO Donald Graham to sell was his lack of faith in the paper's course under current ownership. Like many American papers, The Post had not escaped financial turmoil. According to the paper's own media reporter, Paul Farhi, the Washington Post Co.'s newspaper division suffered a 44 percent decline in operating revenue over the past six years. "[W]e wanted to do more than survive. I’m not saying this guarantees success but it gives us a much greater chance of success," Graham said.
With this news, the conversation now turns to Bezos, who Bloomberg estimates is currently worth $28.2 billion, and his plans to save the ailing newspaper. The man, of course, is known for turning a $300,000 investment into the online commerce powerhouse Amazon. And, well, The Washington Post needs that sort of juice. "I don’t want to imply that I have a worked-out plan ... This will be uncharted terrain and it will require experimentation," Bezos told The Post, which explains that Bezos will be the paper's sole owner when the sale is finalized in about two months.
So how are staffers taking news about their new owner? The reception doesn't seem to be glowing, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning Post scribe Gene Weingarten:
Initial staff reaction: Ungghkh.— Gene Weingarten (@geneweingarten) August 5, 2013
That's not exactly enthusiastic. Foremost is the fear that Bezos will bring the Amazon model of brutal efficiency to The Washington Post, erasing the institutional memory of the newspaper of record of the nation's capitol.
No more Graham family running the Washington Post. Wow. Just please don't tell me the Sulzbergers are selling the NYT to Mark Zuckerberg.— Doug Sovern (@SovernNation) August 5, 2013
You just assume that families like the Grahams or the Sulzbergers would rather go penniless on the street than sell the paper. But...— Alex Parker (@AlexParkerDC) August 5, 2013
To the employees of The Washington Post:
You’ll have heard the news, and many of you will greet it with a degree of apprehension. When a single family owns a company for many decades, and when that family acts for all those decades in good faith, in a principled manner, in good times and in rough times, as stewards of important values – when that family has done such a good job – it is only natural to worry about change.
So, let me start with something critical. The values of The Post do not need changing. The paper’s duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners. We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes. When we do, we will own up to them quickly and completely.
I won’t be leading The Washington Post day-to-day. I am happily living in “the other Washington” where I have a day job that I love. Besides that, The Post already has an excellent leadership team that knows much more about the news business than I do, and I’m extremely grateful to them for agreeing to stay on.
There will of course be change at The Post over the coming years. That’s essential and would have happened with or without new ownership. The Internet is transforming almost every element of the news business: shortening news cycles, eroding long-reliable revenue sources, and enabling new kinds of competition, some of which bear little or no news-gathering costs. There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy. We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment. 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. I’m excited and optimistic about the opportunity for invention.
Journalism plays a critical role in a free society, and The Washington Post -- as the hometown paper of the capital city of the United States -- is especially important. I would highlight two kinds of courage the Grahams have shown as owners that I hope to channel. The first is the courage to say wait, be sure, slow down, get another source. Real people and their reputations, livelihoods and families are at stake. The second is the courage to say follow the story, no matter the cost. While I hope no one ever threatens to put one of my body parts through a wringer, if they do, thanks to Mrs. Graham’s example, I’ll be ready.
I want to say one last thing that’s really not about the paper or this change in ownership. I have had the great pleasure of getting to know Don very well over the last ten plus years. I do not know a finer man.
- And here is Graham's letter to Post staffers:
I have a most surprising announcement. Our company is making it public right now that we have sold The Washington Post to Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. To be clear, the buyer is not Amazon, but a company owned by Jeff personally. The price is $250 million and what we are selling includes the weekly papers called for shorthand The Gazettes and Robinson Terminal...
This leaves me with two questions: why are we selling and why to Jeff? The first question is much the harder.
All the Grahams in this room have been proud to know since we were very little that we were part of the family that owned The Washington Post. We have loved the paper, what it stood for, and those who produced it.
But the point of our ownership has always been that it was supposed to be good for the Post. As the newspaper business continued to bring up questions to which we have no answers, Katharine and I began to ask ourselves if our small public company was still the best home for the newspaper. Our revenues had declined seven years in a row. We had innovated and to my critical eye our innovations had been quite successful in audience and in quality, but they hadn’t made up for the revenue decline. Our answer had to be cost cuts and we knew there was a limit to that. We were certain the paper would survive under our ownership, but we wanted it to do more than that. We wanted it to succeed.