Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos just scooped up the Washington Post and some other newspapers for $250 million. Like most newspapers, the Post has been losing readers and advertisers to the Internet and has seen its value plummet.
So why would Bezos buy it?
He’s a successful business man, so a first thought might be: to make money. In that case, you might ask if a newspaper that has over the last decade seen its circulation shrink and its revenues fall really makes a good investment. Maybe so, says Susan Bidel, a media analyst at Forester Research. Bezos is known as a savvy "disruptor" of old business models, so he could be the perfect candidate to turn things around.
“If newspapers are going to return to the kinds and levels of profitability that they've had in the past, then a pretty significant disruption in how they do business is probably necessary,” Bidel says.
Of course, maybe the Post purchase is not so much a business investment for Bezos, as a civic or cultural one. Gabriel Kahn, a professor at the Annenberg School of Journalism at USC makes the point that the money Bezos paid for the Washington Post is a tiny fraction of his net worth. Maybe the paper doesn't have to make money for him, and Bezos just likes the idea of keeping an important civic institution afloat.
“It seems to be a purchase based more on understanding the civic value of this kind of institution, beyond its financial value,” says Kahn. And that’s exactly what Bezos seemed to be telling the staff of the Post this week, when he wrote to them in a letter that “the paper’s duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners. We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes.”
Beyond truth and civic value, there are other benefits that come with owning a venerable newspaper, especially one in the nation’s capitol.
“Newspapers still have tremendous clout, authority and influence,” says Kahn. And that raises questions of course about what kind of influence Bezos might try to have on the issues the newspaper covers. He has said that he will stay out of the day to day management of the paper. But from online sales tax policy, to copyright laws, to the workplace conditions of Amazon.com, many of the issues a newspaper like the Post scrutinizes are ones that have bearing on the company Bezos founded.
In the last year we've seen the titans of the tech world -- from Mark Zuckerberg to Eric Schmidt -- taking on more of a presence in Washington and in politics. They've gone the lobbying route, but one could find another route in the Washington Post.