June 8, 2016

In 2005, Don Graham let Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg walk away from a handshake deal that would have seen The Washington Post Company own 10 percent of the fledgling social media colossus.

So when another digital tycoon came calling, it’s no surprise that Graham, the chief executive of the company, was willing to cut a deal.

The thwarted investment with Zuckerberg, The Washington Post’s era-ending handoff to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and the current state of the paper under his ownership are all described in a report published today by The Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

Much of the report, by Northeastern University professor Dan Kennedy, is drawn from new interviews with Washington Post Editor Marty Baron, Chief Information Officer Shailesh Prakash and other Post staffers. There’s also a fair bit of dot-connecting here, weaving original information together with reports published elsewhere to paint a comprehensive picture of life at Washington, D.C.’s paper of record.

The upshot is a story that’s been reported elsewhere but bears repeating: Although Bezos has invested lots of money in The Post, he doesn’t see it as a vanity project or prestige investment. By Kennedy’s reckoning, Bezos wants The Washington Post’s business to be healthy enough to support its journalism for the long-term. Here’s a telling paragraph from the introduction:

Insiders at the Post emphasize that Bezos is operating the Post as a business, not as an extravagant personal plaything. Although he has bolstered the newsroom, its staffing remains well below the level it reached at the peak of the Graham era. But almost alone among owners of major newspapers, he has shown a willingness to invest now in the hopes of reaching future profitability.

The report contains several anecdotes that illustrate Bezos’ effect on The Washington Post, the changing aspects of the newspaper and the perception of his ownership among the paper’s executives. Here are a few of the most interesting sections:

  • Bezos is trying to turn The Washington Post into a national newspaper.

    If it were possible to point to a single decision Jeff Bezos has made that transformed the internal ambitions and external perceptions of The Washington Post, it was to turn the Post into a truly national newspaper. The move resolved a tension that had extended at least back to the Watergate era, when Katharine Graham attempted to take advantage of the paper’s growing reputation by launching a national weekly edition.

  • His business history gives reason to believe he’s in it for the long haul.

    Brad Stone, the author of The Everything Store, which tracks the rise of Amazon, told me that the parallels between Amazon and the Post are clear. ‘He’s lost money more often than he’s made money, and it’s all part of his long-term plan,’ he said. ‘You’ve got someone with a real appetite for the pain of the news business right now.’

  • Bezos’ reputation as a prickly CEO hasn’t manifested itself, leaders say.

    When I asked Marty Baron about Bezos’s reputation for being difficult, he replied, “I haven’t encountered that at all. I think that he asks good questions. He likes data to support things rather than just feelings. But I have found him to be committed to our mission, has a good sense of it, has good ideas, and has brought not only the financial capital that we need but intellectual capital, which I think is at least as important.

  • The Washington Post is beginning to think of the web as its own format, competing with everyone else online.

    Among the examples Baron cited: hiring young digital-native journalists who write with a distinctive voice and who are unconcerned as to whether their stories appear in print; embracing multimedia tools such as video, the publication of original documents, and annotation (presidential debate transcripts, for instance, have been marked up with highlighted comments by Post journalists); and writing engaging headlines that are not constrained by the artificial confines of column width, as are print headlines.

  • The Washington Post is publishing a lot of stuff.

    The Post’s digital growth has also been fueled simply by offering much more content (a word Baron doesn’t like, by the way). The Post publishes a lot of material online—about 1,200 pieces a day—and a good deal of that never finds its way into print. Blogs such as “Morning Mix” and “World Views” aggregate national and international news reported by other media outlets (call them Bezos’s revenge against The Huffington Post).

  • Bezos hasn’t tried to exert control over the newspaper, staffers say.

    Baron, for his part, said he has no intention of letting Bezos’s ownership of the Post interfere with the way his journalists cover Amazon. “Jeff said at his first town hall here, ‘You should cover me and cover Amazon the way you would cover any other company and any other chief executive,’ and I’m fine with that,” Baron said. “On multiple occasions since then he has repeated that. He said the same thing to me personally. And I said, ‘Good, because that’s what I’m planning to do.’ And I have never heard from him about a single story about Amazon or anything like that.”

You can read the full report here and listen to Kennedy discuss it below.

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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