March 24, 2016

Since Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post in 2013, his ownership has been greeted by voluminous reportage from journalists seeking to discern his influence on the newspaper.

A new longread from Fortune’s Adam Lashinsky reveals that the Post has been bombarded with lots of ideas from the tech entrepreneur-turned-newspaper-owner — both good and bad.

Case in point: One brainstorming session with Bezos yielded the possibility of creating a premium feature that would allow Washington Post readers to remove all the vowels from a story they didn’t like. Mercifully, Executive Editor Marty Baron shot it down.

Sometimes Bezos’s creativity gets the better of him. Prakash says the owner suggested a gamelike feature that would allow a reader who didn’t enjoy an article to pay to remove its vowels. He called it ‘disemvoweling,’ and the concept was to allow another reader to pay to restore the missing letters. The idea didn’t go far, Prakash says, noting that ‘Marty wasn’t very keen.’ Bezos, an unrepentant believer in the power of brainstorming, says, ‘Working together with other smart people in front of a whiteboard, we can come up with a lot of very bad ideas.’

The article, a multi-part deep-dive into Bezos’ ranging ambitions as a retail giant, publishing mogul and space explorer, is filled with anecdotes about Bezos’ influence on The Washington Post. They confirm previous accounts that describe the Post owner as obsessive on tech and product matters but uninterested in setting the news agenda. Here are a few of the most interesting tidbits:

Baron describes Bezos’ influence at The Washington Post:

Baron sits at a small table in his not particularly grand office in the Post’s new downtown Washington headquarters, which is more lobbyist chic than hot-type-in-the-basement gritty. He explains that Bezos’s chief editorial contribution has been to ‘push us into the recognition that living in the world of the Internet is different from living in a print world.’

How the Post newsroom views Bezos:

Post people seem to value most that Bezos provides them air cover while they fiddle with ways to survive the transition from print to digital. Hiring has ramped up significantly under Bezos, providing more resources for serious journalism too. Ryan, the publisher, credits Bezos with demanding risk taking—without fear that failure will be punished. ‘That provides a sense of invigoration, particularly when other publications are in this mode of ‘If this doesn’t work, there’ll be hell to pay next quarter.’

On Bezos’ motivation to buy The Post:

For his part, Bezos professes his belief in the Post’s democracy-­sustaining mission—if not its potential to increase his wealth. ‘I would not have bought the Washington Post if it had been a financially upside-down salty-snack-food company,’ he says. Bezos describes being 10 years old, sprawled on the floor of his grandfather’s house, watching the Watergate hearings. The Post, of course, achieved its maximum renown covering that political scandal. ‘We need institutions that have the resources and the training and the skill, expertise, to find things,’ Bezos says. ‘It’s pretty important who we elect as President, all those things, and we need to examine those people, try to understand them better.’

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

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