Jeff Bezos' prime target: Prestige?

A man leaves the Washington Post building after the announced sale of the newspaper August 5, 2013 in Washington, D.C. The Graham family has agreed to sell the flagship newspaper for $250 million to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.

Warren Buffett did it. So did Rupert Murdoch. And now Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, has joined the list of wealthy businessmen who have bought newspapers.  In the case of Bezos, it's the Washington Post, and he paid $250 million for it. But just what do you get for your money, when you buy a newspaper? If it’s prestige and influence, does owning a paper still mean as much as it once did? 

Moguls, titans, press lords are all names for the rich and powerful owners of newspapers. In the movie "Citizen Kane," the paper’s wealthy owner, Charles Kane, gets a cable from a reporter in Cuba questioning the paper’s point of view.

“Girls delightful in Cuba. Stop. Could send you prose poems about scenery, but don't feel right spending your money. Stop. There is no war in Cuba, signed Wheeler.” But Kane’s dictated response proves his power as owner. "Dear Wheeler: you provide the prose poems. I'll provide the war."

But that’s the movies.  Does owning a newspaper today, in real life, really mean you can control the news? Wharton professor Daniel Raff says history’s track record says yes.

“If you watch 'Citizen Kane' and think gosh, could anyone have done this sort of thing, Colonel McCormick is your first port of call,” he says.

Raff notes that in the years leading up to World War II, the owner of the Chicago Tribune, Robert McCormick, was known for pushing isolationism through his paper. And more recently he says Rupert Murdoch has blurred the line between private and public interests. 

“No one who has been following the history of the Murdoch ownership of papers in the United Kingdom will have any doubt about that,” he says. 

Which may leave you wondering, what about Jeff Bezos? Robert Lichter, director of George Mason University’s Center for Media and Public Affairs, says newspapers have changed. They’re no longer a stable source of revenue. Instead he says, the questions those titans, moguls and press lords are left asking is:  “What’s in it for me? Well you get social prominence. You get social stature. It’s like buying a sports team but more serious," Lichter says. 

But  Lictcher also says it may not be the news at all that Jeff Bezos is after with the Washington Post. It's been days since the purchase, and still no one knows for sure.


So what else has Bezos invested in? If there were an Amazon listing...

(Illustration by Matt Berger and Chau Tu)

About the author

Sally Herships is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...