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Don Graham’s family owned the Washington Post for 80 years. By the standards of the guy who bought it from them, that’s the blink of an eye.
Besides his new 474,000-circulation daily toy, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos also owns a project to build a clock that’s supposed to last for 10,000 years. (He paid $42 million for it, or about one-sixth what he spent on the Post.) He’s kept shareholders in his main business wondering about whether it would turn profits in any given quarter since it was founded. And late this year, he unveiled a new plan to deliver Amazon orders by drone—possibly by sometime in 2015, possibly later.
All of which means the Post under Bezos could be freed from the death spiral the news business has been in for more than a decade: Staying relevant for the future requires investments, sometimes massive ones, in technologies and systems that can’t possibly pay for the ongoing costs legacy print and broadcast operations still incur today. The Grahams were, compared to Wall Street, benevolent overlords, but the family’s shocking decision to sell its flagship paper to Bezos this summer showed that there are limits to how long they’d let the Post drag down the financial performance of their holding company. (And it also showed that the Graham family company’s for-profit education arm was not, as observers had long thought, capable of throwing off enough money to subsidize the newspaper’s losses indefinitely.) But Bezos is worth $27 billion, so the pressure to turn a quick buck on new investments won’t be quite as intense; he’d barely notice the cash it would take to, say, overhaul the paper’s circulation systems, rebuild its website, or double its news-gathering staff.
Which is not to say he’s planning to do any of that. Since the sale closed, the Bezos-owned Post made a few hires and stopped cutting future budgets, but for now, there’s little clear sign of exactly what the man from the other Washington wants to do in this one. Existing management stayed in place. For a little while longer, at least, the paper is even still in its old headquarters at 15th and L streets NW, the one made famous in the Robert Redford movie. Not for long, though: Graham Holdings Company, the new name for the Post-free former Washington Post Company, cut a deal in November to sell the real estate to Carr Properties for $159 million—or only about $91 million less than the newspaper was worth.