Who's in charge?
It could have happened something like this. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, was idly surfing the Internet one day when he clicked on the Washington Post. He didn't mean to. Even though he lives in Washinton, he never reads the paper. There wasn't anything interesting there, so he let his attention drift. A few days later, his American Express statement arrived and he noticed an unusual charge for $250 million. Whoa there! What the hell did I just do?
Well actually, that's just the New Yorker's Andy Borowitz poking fun at the situation. But this much is true: Bezos, the 49-year-old founder of the world's largest on-line shopping network, has just bought the Washington Post, the newspaper famous for uncovering Watergate and toppling President Richard Nixon.
The purchase price amounts to less than 1 percent of Bezos' net worth and ends several decades of ownership by the Graham family. Once a powerhouse, the Post is limping. Circulation has dropped to 474,000, down from 832,000 in 1993. The newsroom staff, once upwards of a thousand, is now half that. Advertising lineage is way down, too, no doubt due to outfits like, well ... Amazon, right?
In a letter to staff, Bezos clumsily tried to pay tribute to the newspaper's journalistic traditions, but ended up sounding smarmy and sycophantic. Referring to Nixon henchman John Mitchell's famous threat to put publisher Kay Graham's tit through a wringer if her reporters didn't back off on their Watergate investigation, Bezos wrote: "While I hope no one ever threatens to put one of my body parts through a wringer, if they do, thanks to Mrs. Graham’s example, I’ll be ready."
Ready to do what, Mr. Bezos? Stand up to a president?
So this is the way the iconic newspapers of North America are going these days, and it seems to be the same old game with new players, except these guys have no previous experience. They are outsiders to the news business at a time when newspapers need to artfully reinvent themselves, perhaps investing in quality journalism, or die a painful death. Instead, they're being sold as playthings and diversions to the super rich.
We don't know what Bezos' motives are for owning the Post, but we do know that he is no believer in the future of newspapers. Just last year, he said in an interview with a German newspaper, "There is one thing I’m certain about: there won’t be printed newspapers in 20 years. Maybe as luxury items in some hotels that want to offer them as an extravagant service."
You might be interested in David Remnick's take on this whole thing here.
News of the Washington Post sale came on the heels of billionaire sportsman John Henry's purchase of the Boston Globe. All that took was a paltry $70 million.The sale price shows the paper’s staggering drop in value since 1993, when the New York Times bought the Globe and its other local media properties from the Taylor family for $1.1 billion.
Henry, 63, built his fortune as a commodities trader and Forbes pegs his net worth at $1.5 billion. Besides the Boston Red Sox, his investments include the Liverpool soccer club, and Rousch Fenway Racing. Henry’s stake in the New England Sports Network is said to be worth more than $600 million.
The obvious worry is that Henry's interests in sports cable and the Red Sox will cause him to influence the Globe's coverage in that area. Ian Crouch raises other questions in his analysis of Henry's purchase here.
The record of rich financiers dabbling in newspapers is a mixed one. Warren Buffett has snapped up more than 60 newspapers over the last two years, mainly in smaller U.S. centres. His investing strategy is "buy and hold." Sam Zell, on the other hand, sunk the Tribune Co. into bankruptcy less than a year after he took it private. In Canada, we have the Thomson family steadfastly at the helm of The Globe and Mail.
Money alone won't save newspapers. You need courage, vision, patience, commitment and a new business plan.
That seems beyond the talents of anyone running newspapers these days, so maybe it's time for them to let someone else try. As Don Graham, outgoing CEO of the Washington Post, said when he announced the sale to Bezos: "The newspaper business seems to be asking us questions that we don't know how to answer."
We'll have to see what new blood can do. When you have a bad toothache and your town has no dentists, you can be forgiven for seeking out the guy down the street who's handy with pliers (thanks to David Carr for that analogy). While it's nice to see billionaires investing in newspapers, they run the risk of soon being millionaires. They certainly didn't get rich by standing up for truth or injustice or public service -- the traditional currency of good newspapers.
I prefer to believe that if there still is an appetite for news, most people will want to get it from someone who believes in the news.