Amazon founder Jeff Bezos gave his first interview since it was announced last month that he was purchasing The Washington Post. He said that he hopes to “usher in a new golden era” for the Post:
If we figure out a new golden era at The Post…that will be due to the ingenuity and inventiveness and experimentation of the team at The Post…I’ll be there with advice from a distance. If we solve that problem, I won’t deserve credit for it.
Bezos hopes to implement some of the same strategies that have made Amazon a success for 18 years—put the customer first. Invent. Be patient. He said that if you replace “customer” with “reader,” and use the same approach, the Post will be successful as well.
Well at least he doesn’t lack optimism.
But Bezos is facing some serious challenges as he prepares to take ownership of the Post. Even with his personal net worth of $24 billion, they won’t be easy challenges to solve. Bezos promised to provide a “runway” of financial support for a lengthy period of time so that management can experiment to find a profitable formula for delivering the news.
With a rapidly declining print subscriber and advertising base, management will likely find that online is the only hope for delivering news at a profit.
But even that’s not guaranteed if it’s not done in a cost efficient manner, as Bezos has learned at Amazon.
Donald Graham, chairman of the Post, sold the paper to Bezos hoping that the Internet retailing genius can save the paper, which had been in Graham’s family for 80 years. But Bezos isn’t a print guy. He may sell millions of books a year, but more and more of those are electronic versions that can be read on Amazon’s Kindle reader or other mobile devices.
Graham made a similar move when he sold Newsweek to the late Sid Harman, hoping that the billionaire would save the money-losing magazine. Harman wound up combining Newsweek with The Daily Beast. After his death, it went online only and was eventually sold.
Bezos feels that The Post is an important institution and well worth saving—otherwise why would he spend $250 million on a money-losing operation? Graham acknowledged the challenge Bezos faces in taking over the Post when he said, “Mr. Bezos is a businessman, not a magician.” He knows better than anyone that at some point, the future of the paper will be decided on business terms.