Post-er Boy Bezos

AP Photo/stf/bd

Most liberals I’ve spoken with are appalled that Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is buying The Washington Post. I’m no great fan of Bezos or of Amazon’s user-friendly though predatory retailing tactics, but here is a contrarian view of the Post purchase.

A widely-shared concern is that one of the last family-owned newspapers with a sense of civic mission is being bought as a trophy property by a billionaire.

But wealthy moguls have always been the owners of newspapers. Occasionally, we get lucky with a family that happens to care about the public wellbeing, such as the Sulzbergers at The New York Times, the Grahams at the Post, or the Bancroft family at The Wall Street Journal in the pre-Rupert Murdoch days. But for every one of those, there is a Murdoch or a Hearst.

Alas, The Washington Post is no longer your father’s Post. It’s been a long downward slide since the glory days of Kay Graham, Ben Bradlee, Woodward, and Bernstein.  The current publisher, Katharine Weymouth, is a shadow of her famous grandmother. Bezos says he will keep Weymouth, but if you look at the record of new owners retaining publishers from former franchises, they hardly ever do.

The Post management has made major mistakes trying to navigate the slippery terrain of keeping a flagship print daily alive and well in an Internet age. If anyone can figure out how to make a newspaper thrive in the new digital world, it is Bezos.

(The New Republic under fellow web billionaire Chris Hughes doesn’t exactly share our politics or those of its own progressive era roots, but is surely preferable to the magazine under the stewardship of Marty Peretz.)

A second concern is that Bezos is a classic West Coast web entrepreneur in his politics—liberal on social issues, conservative on economic ones. Well, have you read the Post lately? Its economic coverage, both on the editorial page and in its news columns, is pretty center-right. On fiscal politics, it is a cheerleader for Bowles-Simpson style austerity. Bezos will fit right in.

As a print junkie, my hope is that newspaper owners will figure out the economics of preserving the major dailies before they are destroyed by the Googles of the world taking too big a share of web ad revenue—taking a free ride on someone else’s expensive-to-produce content.

My prediction is that web-savvy owners like Bezos will eventually come up with a pay-wall model that sticks, as well as a fairer split of web ad income.

Users of free music file-sharing services got retrained by iTunes to pay 99 cents per song. We are now spending lots of money on apps, and on Kindle books. It’s only a matter of time before the premium dailies figure out how to charge for their premium content and readers get used to paying for it, whether the platform is web or print, or a blend. The alternative is for the great daily franchises to fold.

So I have no illusions about the politics of Jeff Bezos, but then neither do I have illusions about the talents, commitments, or deep pockets of Katharine Weymouth. Don Graham, the chairman of the Post Company, may have had similar forebodings when he decided to sell.

Short of public or non-profit trusts to own newspapers, such as the Scott Trust which owns the British Guardian, there is no good solution to the family succession/billionaire trophy/web encroachment complex, but only lots of second-bests. Of the available second bests, Bezos isn’t too bad.

Now let’s see if John Henry, the new owner of The Boston Globe, can translate his astute brand of moneyball from his first-place Boston Red Sox into what it takes to run a newspaper. That’s even more of a stretch.

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