The news just broke that Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, is buying the Washington Post. Two points to make about this. First, Slate is a property of the Washington Post Company but is not part of the Washington Post. Neither it nor Foreign Policy nor the Root have been sold. In fact, Bezos isn’t even buying the building in which the Post is currently located. Second, I’m reading a lot of jokes on Twitter about Post subscriptions and Amazon Prime tie-ins, but to be clear Bezos personally is buying the Post. Amazon is not buying anything. Bezos is a personally wealthy man, and newspapers sell for cheap these days—he’s paying “only” $250 million for it—while Amazon the company has a market capitalization of $136 billion.
A further thing to understand about this is that even though the Washington Post Company is obviously named after the daily newspaper, the paper is a rather small part of the company. As of this morning the Post Company was a diversified conglomerate with interests that included education (primarily Kaplan), cable television (Cable One, which is a major operator in some unfashionable parts of the country), hospices, and even industrial equipment. Obviously the company is going to have to be renamed, and on a symbolic level, this is a major change in the company’s identity and in the Graham family’s relationship to the city of Washington. But from a corporate viewpoint, this represents the sale of just one asset out of many.
Now based on what we can tell from Bezos’ stewardship of Amazon, he’s possibly a dream owner from a journalism viewpoint. It’s of course possible that his intention is to run the company with a mindset of cutbacks on the expenses side to try to milk as much profit as possible out of a business in terminal decline. But he’s famously run Amazon as a deliberately low-margin, growth-oriented firm. If he runs the newspaper in anything like that same spirit, it’ll be an excellent thing for the world, whether or not it works out as a business. But to be honest, we have no real idea what he intends to do with the paper. Journalism-as-vanity-project-for-rich-guy has a long and storied tradition in America, but it’s a bit of an odd fit in the sense that Bezos has no personal ties to the city of Washington. His memo to Post employees confirms that he has no intention of moving to D.C. to run the paper on a day-to-day basis, and he says the Post “already has an excellent leadership team.” Beyond that, he doesn’t give much hint as to his plans.