The Washington Post announced its sale to Jeff Bezos today. (Source: Reuters)
It is fascinating, as a writer, to see the slow-burning self-destruction of the print media industry. Many years will pass before it settles on its final role as a niche market, though calls and predictions for its death may be unfounded, and the laments are few and far between. At the same time, what has taken its place is not all together pleasant: A new media filled with sponsored content, memes for revenue, and lists disguised as articles. Granted, the old industry had a lot of broken aspects to it, including cronyism and sensationalism in the name of printing papers, as well as just general snobbishness that exist. But it feels unsettling, what is developing here. It is worse when the convergence of print and new media occurs in very awkward ways, as has been demonstrated by the purchase of The New Republic by a Facebook founder.
Now, we are about to witness a new convergence at the newspaper level. The Washington Post announced that its owners, the Graham family, will be selling the newspaper to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos for $250 million. The Graham family, whose leaders included Katharine Graham, who led the paper through its greatest triumph in breaking the Watergate scandal, will maintain The Washington Post Company as a publicly-traded company, though it will change its name following completion of the sale. In a letter to the Washington Post staff, Jeff Bezos explained that he will own the company separately from his other primary company, and will not personally run the paper on a day-to-day basis, though he will lead on new experiments for the paper.
To its credit, the Post needed to change, and change dramatically: The accusations that the Washington Post, which once served as a counter-balance to the political machinations of Washington, now serves as a schmoozing insider to it, are not far-fetched. It has done much to ensure its position in Washington, including using euphemisms and language that favor the government. However, it is hard to see how Bezos can improve the situation. He's an executive who has long focused on the distribution of goods, not their creation. Given that he will be staying in the Seattle area, the stereotype of an aloof leader becomes a possibility, and with that comes irresponsibility. There are definitely things that the Washington Post can do to improve that Bezos can bring to the table, such as establishing a site meter and subscription system, and giving its bloggers like Ezra Klein some free rein from the editor's desk. But Bezos' willingness to "experiment" may mean something else entirely.