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No one knew quite what to think when Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post from the legendary Graham family five years ago. David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker and a former Postie, sniffed that a statement issued by Bezos for the occasion—so bland that Remnick didn’t even bother to quote from it—said “all the correct and anodyne things” but “was not terribly revealing.” A warts-and-all profile of Bezos in the Post itself quoted Shel Kaphlan, a former close associate, as saying he was “nauseous” at the possibility that Bezos would transform the paper into “a corporate libertarian mouthpiece.”
Today, Bezos presides over a news organization that has been utterly transformed. Previously a large but shrinking regional newspaper, the Post of 2018 is a national digital news source with a growing reportorial staff that claims more than a million paid internet-only subscribers and two straight years of profits. Under executive editor Marty Baron, a Graham-era holdover, the Post is competing hard with its ancient rival, The New York Times, to tell the story of the unfolding (and unraveling) Trump presidency. And Bezos, by all accounts, has been an ideal owner, leaving in place most of the team he inherited, keeping his hands off the news and opinion operations, but applying money, energy, and technical smarts to expand the Post’s reach.
The reinvention of the Post is one of several stories I tell in my new book, The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century, published earlier this year by ForeEdge. In it, I follow the trajectories of three wealthy newspaper owners—Bezos; Henry, the principal owner of the Boston Red Sox and a financier who announced he would buy The Boston Globe just a few days before the Bezos bombshell; and Aaron Kushner, a Boston-based entrepreneur who headed an investment group that bought the Orange County Register in 2012. Kushner’s wildly ambitious print-oriented expansion plans led to a quick flameout when revenues failed to materialize. Henry is still losing money with the Globe, though he’s experienced some success on the digital-subscription front. Bezos, by contrast, has been an unalloyed success.
That said, Bezos had advantages that were not available to Henry and Kushner—and being the richest person in the world has less to do with it than you might think. Regional newspapers like the Globe and the Register are perhaps the most endangered species in the media ecosystem: They are too small to compete for national and international news, but too large for the community-level coverage that many readers want. Simply by virtue of the Post’s being in D.C., Bezos was able to leverage the paper’s digital platforms and reorient the paper as a national player. He’s also integrated the Post with Amazon in ways that simply aren’t available to other newspaper owners. A Post app comes preinstalled on the Kindle Fire, and the Post is available at a steep discount through Amazon Prime.
At the same time that Bezos, Henry, and others—most recently Patrick Soon-Shiong, a billionaire surgeon who’s buying the Los Angeles Times—are trying to revive the newspaper business and restore its civic mission, corporate chain owners are cutting staff and coverage in an attempt to squeeze out every last drop of profit. The most notorious is Digital First Media, which operates about 100 papers on both coasts (including the post-Kushner Orange County Register) and points in between.
Digital First, controlled by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, has sparked an insurrection at The Denver Post, which recently published an editorial as well as other commentaries denouncing its corporate overlords as “vulture capitalists” and demanding that the company either reverse some of the steep cuts it had imposed or sell the paper to someone else. Newspaper analyst Ken Doctor recently revealed that the profit margin at Digital First’s papers is 17 percent—an obscenely high figure that helps explain why Alden Global’s principal, Randall Smith, has been able to load up on $57 million worth of property in Palm Beach, Florida. Greed will not reverse the financial crisis that threatens journalism.
The challenges facing the newspaper business are enormous, and solving them is vital. It’s been estimated that more than 80 percent of the journalism we rely on to hold government and other large institutions to account originates with newspapers. In an era of political and social divisiveness, accusations of “fake news,” and a slide toward authoritarianism, we rely on newspapers to provide us with the information we need to live in a democracy. If new media moguls can show the way forward, they will have performed a tremendous public service for all of us.
Dan Kennedy, an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a nationally known media commentator, will speak on Wednesday, June 13, at 6:30 p.m. at the National Press Club, followed by a book signing. For details, please click here.