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This Week in Review: Why Bezos is buying the Washington Post, and what’s next for it

Plus: John Henry buys The Boston Globe, AOL’s Patch cuts, and the rest of the week’s news in journalism and the web.

Bezos buys The Post: This week’s announcement that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is buying The Washington Post was arguably the biggest and most surprising news in journalism in several years. Bezos bought the paper from its longtime owner, the Graham family, for $250 million (reportedly much more than it’s worth), moving the paper from a publicly traded company to private ownership. (Bezos is buying the paper personally; Amazon isn’t involved.) You can read Donald Graham’s memo on selling the paper, Bezos’ memo on buying it (praised extensively at Poynter), and reactions from Post staffers, including an open letter to Bezos from columnist Gene Weingarten.

A rather absurd number of people wrote substantial articles about the deal, and many of them were quite insightful. To try to present as much of it as possible without overwhelming you, I’ll break it down into a few broad questions (several of which are addressed adeptly in this Ken Doctor analysis):

— Why is Bezos buying The Post? Two main possibilities were suggested by several people. The first, articulated most thoroughly and persuasively by The New Yorker’s John Cassidy, was that Bezos sees the paper as a political tool — not necessarily to pursue an ideological agenda, but to protect Amazon’s interests in Washington. The Verge’s Greg Sandoval, Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici, and The New York Times’ Nick Wingfield and David Streitfeld also explored the interest Bezos and Amazon might have in gaining some political clout in Washington.

The second possibility is tied to the possible assets that The Post could provide to Amazon. Media analyst Alan Mutter was the leading proponent of this view, detailing some possible synergies at his own blog and in a Post piece, which The Post’s Lydia DePillis later expanded on. Business Insider’s Henry Blodget and Forbes’ Greg Satell also suggested common purposes between the two businesses, and The Post and Businessweek’s Brad Stone explored how Bezos’ Amazon management strategy might transfer over. Chris Hughes, the Facebook co-founder who made a similar purchase of The New Republic, said Bezos sees the value of The Post’s brand.

A few other suggestions about motivations and influence: The New Yorker’s Matt Buchanan put the purchase in the context of Bezos’ grand ambitions for humanity as a whole, and at the Lab, Tim Carmody suggested Bezos may see this as his legacy, something to pass onto his children. In a particularly perceptive piece, journalism professorMike Ananny argued at the Lab that Bezos’ influence should be best seen not in terms of brute force, but in infrastructure, calling us to “recast media ownership concerns in terms of infrastructure design.”

— Why might Bezos be good for The Post? Thanks in large part to Bezos’ history of reinventing (or overthrowing) the publishing and e-commerce industries, his purchase was met by many with a feeling of optimism about his ability to bring substantial innovation to The Post, as The Times reported. The Post’s Ezra Klein (noting some caveats) said he was “hopeful,” as did CUNY professor Jeff Jarvis. Among the reasons for optimism listed by PandoDaily’s Sarah Lacy was that Bezos has a record of long-term thinking and “might actually have a plan.”

Reuters’ Jack Shafer and Slate’s Farhad Manjoo laid out that case for Bezos most persuasively, drawing on his record at Amazon. At CNN, Dan Sinker also made that case, focusing on Bezos’ remarkable work on Amazon Web Services. Others also hailed Bezos as a visionary in digitally oriented business: Former Post and Amazon staffer Bill Curry, former PolitiFact head Bill Adair, Digital First’s Steve Buttry, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, former FCCers Julian Genachowski and Steven Waldman, and former Post blogger Dan Froomkin, as well as Salon’s Andrew Leonard (with a heavy dose of snark). Wall Street Journal web veteran Jason Fry argued that with Bezos, “the Post has money and time to experiment and try to become something new. Which means it has a chance to survive.” And Ingram and Steve Outing gave Bezos some suggestions for reinventing The Post.

— Why might Bezos be bad for The Post? The most common objection to Bezos’ Post ownership was that while he did turn Amazon into a web behemoth, he did so by embodying “the faster-cheaper-further mindset that scratches away daily at our communal fabric,” as The New Republic’s Alec MacGillis put it. Reuters’ Felix Salmon made this point most thoroughly, arguing that this style doesn’t fit in newsrooms, where “greatness emerges mysteriously from the slack in the system.” The Guardian’s Emily Bell also issued a caution about Bezos’ efficiency as she argued that Bezos wouldn’t approach The Post as a philanthropist, and Post veteran and Columbia j-school dean Steve Coll worried that Amazon’s consumer data-driven approach might influence the paper too much (though he also expressed optimism about Bezos).

There were a few other concerns as well: Writer Corey Pein pointed to Bezos’ decision to kick WikiLeaks off Amazon’s web servers because of government pressure as evidence that he prioritizes his political good standing over free speech. BuzzFeed’s Benjamin Freed also argued that the switch to non-local ownership for The Post (Bezos lives in Washington State) is bad for local news in Washington, and MSNBC’s Timothy Noah made a similar point about the decline of local ownership more generally.

— Are we seeing a return to the newspaper baron model? With John Henry’s purchase of The Boston Globe a few days earlier (more on that later), several people saw this as a landmark in the onset of what the Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum called it the “Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper-industry’s collapse.” James Fallows of The Atlantic put it more hopefully, calling it a possible “re-invest[ment] in the infrastructure of our public intelligence.” Ken Doctor has a good explanation of why these billionaires might be doing this and what might result for the industry (less uniformity, higher highs, lower lows).

Like several others, The Post’s Matea Gold likened the purchases to the “newspaper baron” days of the 1800s and early 1900s, when publishing titans ran newspapers as their own personal empires. Dean Starkman of the Columbia Journalism Review tweaked that view a bit, noting that unlike those moguls, the new owners are titans in industries other than publishing, which results in less independence for their media properties. Slate’s Matthew Yglesias called this a return to family ownership after decades of profit-based public ownership, and similarly, David Von Drehle of Time said it marks the end of the cash-cow media monopoly era.

— What about the Grahams? As David Carr of The New York Times wrote, the sale is also the end of 80 years of Graham family ownership of one of America’s premier newspapers. At the Lab, Staci Kramer talked to Donald Graham about the decision to sell, and The New Yorker’s David Remnick reflected on the family and the paper’s decline, concluding, “Donald Graham’s heart is broken.”

John Harris of Politico wrote that the Grahams’ sale “amounts to a confession: Beats us how to make this business work anymore.” In a thoughtful, personal open letter to Bezos, All Things D’s Kara Swisher (a former Post staffer) reflected on the Grahams and expressed her sadness that “these laudable and smart people could not seem to figure it out, and had to turn to a magical Internet wizard to do so.” She also offered some great thoughts on how to make a news organization work in the web world.

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A new local owner in Boston: In what was only the second-biggest newspaper purchase of the week, John Henry, a billionaire who is the principal owner of the Boston Red Sox, agreed to buy The Boston Globe for $70 million from The New York Times Co. The Times bought The Globe in 1993 for $1.1 billion and had been trying to sell it for the past couple of years. Digital First’s Steve Buttry noted that the paper had lost 97% of its value over the past two decades, and The Globe published an in-depth profile of the man who will own it.

The two best analyses of the deal come from the Lab’s Ken Doctor and Poynter’s Rick Edmonds. Doctor pointed out that The Globe has already implemented the changes that new owners have often undertaken at other similar newspapers — an online paywall and a membership program — and examined the reasons the paper continues to underperform. Likewise, Edmonds said that Henry got a good deal on the paper, but that its high-quality, high-cost approach doesn’t make it “a candidate for a quick pivot.” Emerson College journalism professor Mark Leccese argued that Henry will be good for The Globe, and USA Today’s Rem Rieder noted that Henry’s buy marks a return to local ownership for the paper, though that’s not necessarily a salve.

One pressing question regarding the sale is over the conflict of interest involved with The Globe’s coverage of the Red Sox, one of the city’s most prominent local businesses. The Times’ Peter May provided some very background on the relationship between the two, and the Columbia Journalism Review’s Dean Starkman called attention to what he called “the sports-industrial complex” and its entangled relationship to media companies, and Northeastern journalism professor Dan Kennedy said the problem isn’t that the paper will go turn into Red Sox homers (it won’t) but that it’s in a lose-lose situation.

Shortly after the sale, three other potential buyers said their bids for the paper were higher than what Henry is paying. The most vocal of those was John Lynch, CEO of U-T San Diego, who accused the Times Co. of refusing to sell to his group, which has drawn criticism for its conservative political influence on U-T’s content. Kennedy examined the claims and the Times Co.’s response, concluding that it can probably claim it chose the bidder most likely to keep the paper stable into the future.

There were also questions (especially after The Post’s sale) about whether The Times itself would be the next big family-owned paper to be sold. The Post’s Paul Farhi and The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone and Eleazar Melendez raised the question, and while The Times’ Arthur Sulzberger Jr. issued a statement declaring that the paper isn’t for sale, Tom McGeveran of Capital New York parsed it to argue that a sale isn’t as unlikely as we might think.

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AOL growing, Patch shrinking: AOL made a couple of pieces of news in its quarterly earnings report this week, led by its purchase of the web video company Adap.TV for $405 million, the largest of the many purchases in CEO Tim Armstrong’s four-year tenure. Ad Week has some key questions about the deal. Second, as Street Fight’s Steven Jacobs and Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici reported, Armstrong said AOL would be seeking to sell, close, or find “partners” for 300 of the 900 sites in its hyperlocal news network. Only another 300 of those sites have a viable business model, Armstrong said.

Jim Romenesko also reported that Patch is expected to lay off employees — as many as 500 — today. Jeff Jarvis urged an alternative strategy — set up independent entrepreneurs to take over the sites, providing them with venture capital and training to build a network rather than owning it. “I don’t want to see retrenchment of Patch give the naysayers as chance to nya-nya us,” he wrote.

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Reading roundup: Believe it or not, other stuff happened this week, too. Here’s a quick rundown:

— Another much less interesting sale this week: Newsweek (now a digital news org, not a magazine) was sold by The Daily Beast to IBT Media, a web news company that owns the International Business Times. As BuzzFeed noted, IBT has ties to controversial religious leader David Jang. Meanwhile, The New York Times went deep into the mess that was Tina Brown’s tenure as editor of Newsweek.

— Google introduced a tool that highlights in-depth articles in its searches. The Lab’s Caroline O’Donovan explained what’s behind it, and PandoDaily’s Hamish McKenzie and Jihii Jolly of the Future Journalism Project explained why they’re excited about the potential it has to highlight long-form journalism.

— PBS’ NewsHour announced it would be anchored starting this fall by two women, Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff. As The New York Times noted, it’s a milestone for women in journalism, particularly because the NewsHour was famously anchored by two men for decades.

— Finally, Free Press’ Josh Stearns and Chris Palmer wrote a great primer on the history of and prospects for a federal journalism shield law in the U.S., of which a current proposal remains in limbo in the Senate. It’s brief and quite useful.

                                   
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Ann Marie Lipinski    July 24, 2014
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