Every “great” publication knows it’s great. That’s the second prerequisite for the title, after actual greatness: Institutional self regard.
The public indulges this because it’s mostly justified; newspapers punch above their weight in a way few other entities — politicians, perhaps — can dream of. They have acquired power and greatness through means other than money. For this reason, just like politicians, they are attractive to people with money.
This, then, is the most illuminating part of the Post’s own writeup of its sale to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos for a reported $250 million:
The deal represents a sudden and stunning turn of events for The Post, Washington’s leading newspaper for decades and a powerful force in shaping the nation’s politics and policy. Few people were aware that a sale was in the works for the paper, whose reporters have broken such stories as the Pentagon Papers, the Watergate scandals and disclosures about the National Security Administration’s surveillance program in May.
There are misrepresentations here: it was the New York Times that first broke the Pentagon Papers story, which led to further reports in the Post; the NSA story more fully belongs to The Guardian. But they’re forgivable because the Post was not only present but important in these cases, as is has been in countless more before. It has broken and continues to break news that has, as the story says, makes it “a powerful force in shaping the nation’s politics.”
The Post’s greatest triumphs involve fighting with someone much larger and more powerful. In financial terms, the Post is microscopically small compared to the most important entities it covers. So the Post, editorially and institutionally, is familiar with the vagaries of organizations of disparate scale interacting with one another — the strange and unpredictable dynamics, the queasy discomfort, the regret or vindication of instant hindsight. So did the Boston Globe before it was sold to a finance billionaire; likewise for the much smaller New Republic, before Facebook co-founder and twenty-something Chris Hughes took it over.
Patronage and private bailouts — examples of disparate-scale interactions that newspapers are on the losing end of — are as old as media, and nothing new for the Post, which was previously bailed out by a Wall Street mogul in the middle of the Depression (for the equivalent of about $15 million, compared to Bezos’s $250 million).
Which doesn’t explain the deeply felt sense that this is somehow strange. Judging by the initial reactions on Twitter, this announcement took virtually everyone by surprise. Sound media minds shorted out, unable to comprehend what just happened: Bezos, the Amazon guy? Just him? Not Amazon? And just the paper part? None of the parts that make money?
Any shock about the sale of the Boston Globe was relative minor compared to the instant and clear understanding that the deal made sense, historically speaking: a powerful man desired more power, and decided that the media offered a fairly cheap and fast way to acquire said power. John W. Henry fits the traditional profile of a newspaper benefactor: he made his money in finance, he has a towering local profile, and he owns a major sports team. It’s easy to come up with headlines that could describe both the Globe’s sale this year and the Post’s in 1933: “Finance Mogul Buys Ailing Paper.”
In both cases — and I’d venture to say in most cases — these purchases represent nontrivial but fairly small investments. John Henry is worth over a billion dollars, so it was easy to process the Globe’s $70 million sale price. That, like all the other details of the transaction, fits the century-old profile.
But Chris Hughes is worth a billion dollars too. Bezos is worth much, much more. If the Post’s buyer had been some anonymous finance or energy billionaire the story would have been instantly digestible (remember when Sidney Harman bought Newsweek from the Washington Post Company? Surprising, maybe, but hardly shocking). And this tweet wouldn’t have been a joke, just a weird unmoored observation:
Jeff Bezos spent less of his net worth on the Washington Post than Sean Parker spent of his net worth on his wedding.
Bezos is a curious man with an unimaginable amount of money, a desire for power, and an eye for a deal. He happened to make his money in online retail, but that doesn’t matter. He fits a timeless profile to a T. His calculation is almost identical the one Henry made, and the one made by Bezos’s own predecessor 80 years ago. Papers were doomed during the Depression, too — the Post as we know it won’t be saved by a upswing in the economy alone, but there are roads forward. Not that it matters that much! Buying a struggling paper is always, always about more than mere dollars.
The only mysteries here are small and personal. Is Bezos bored? Was Amazon not giving him something he felt like he needed? Does he have latent political ambitions of some sort? His personal and business interests are miles closer to newspapering than the moguls of yore, if you want to approach the situation through that lens.
But you shouldn’t: Bezos’s motivations are best understood as the motivations of a mogul, and the Washington Post’s future is best understood as a future under the ownership of a mogul. The decision to buy the Post is perhaps the least mysterious of his non-Amazon investments, which include space ventures and 3-D printers.
Bezos, despite making his money online, doesn’t have a magical recipe to make the paper hugely profitable; the Post isn’t naively waiting for someone to come along and tell it to join the internet. Its trajectory toward being an online-only publication is steady but largely unbendable — there’s momentum, unionization, and a strikingly large revenue gap between offline and online — even by a new owner who knows his way around the web.
Bezos’s story is old news, as old as news: Mogul Converts Money To Power. Huge Buys Small. The name of the mogul has changed, as has his source of wealth. But that’s distantly secondary: he is still the mogul. The dominant response seems to be that surely Bezos should know better, as a businessman, than to make such a poor investment. Actually, no: the dominant response is to make Amazon jokes. Neither would make much sense to Bezos, who published this letter today:
The values of The Post do not need changing. The paper’s duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners. We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes. When we do, we will own up to them quickly and completely.
We were shocked, albeit less so, when tech billionaires began converting their fortunes into influence through political channels. People expected something different from this generation of moguls, because their businesses were built on “innovation” and “disruption” — flashy synonyms for old ideas — and their products and brands live a bit further forward in the average citizen’s mind than an anonymous finance firm. The novelty of Silicon Valley moguls’ early political forays wore off quickly. This will too.