How the Washington Post has changed under Jeff Bezos

How the Washington Post has changed under Jeff Bezos
Copyright 2019 CNN
The former publisher of The Washington Post describes how Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has helped the paper since he bought it for $250 million in 2013.

Amazon chief Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post in 2013, and within three years the paper had doubled its web traffic and become profitable — an impressive feat for a media company that struggled in the wake of the financial crisis.

The swift turnaround is impressive, to be sure, but what makes Bezos different from other CEOs, according to the Post’s former publisher Donald Graham, is not his talent for driving fast results, but rather his “extreme long-term mindedness.”

Graham would know. He was the one who shepherded the sale of his family’s newspaper to Bezos six years ago. Graham said he had been a “massive Amazon customer” at the time when he was searching for a new owner for The Washington Post and his first impression after talking to Bezos in those initial conversations is “how well that company worked.” Graham credits Bezos’ “usual characteristic” of thinking long term for Amazon’s success.

“I’ve heard people accuse Jeff and Amazon of a lot of things. There was a time when people were saying Amazon was overpriced, that it was going to go bankrupt,” Graham told Poppy Harlow in an exclusive interview for the CNN documentary “The Age of Amazon.” “What I’ve never heard anyone say is that he paid attention to quarterly results as opposed to the health of Amazon in the long term.”

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Bezos’ focus on the long-term is probably the reason why some of his business ventures are nothing short of moonshots: from transforming first the publishing industry, then commerce as a whole through Amazon; to starting Blue Origin, an aerospace exploration company whose motto reads “Step by Step, Ferociously.” Twenty-four years after its founding, Amazon is worth almost $900 billion, and first broke $1 trillion in valuation in September 2018, following Apple.

Bezos’ talent for technology was also appealing to Graham, he said, because the greatest obstacle the Graham family faced in future-proofing the Post was their lack of know-how. “We did not have the technology skills of the great technologists,” Graham said, so he turned to them for advice.

He said he asked tech leaders such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page and Sergey Brin questions like “what would you do if you were the owner of a newspaper? How would you go about trying to adapt it to the digital age?”

He sought out Bezos, though, because he was “smart, sensible and not full of himself” and because his most successful venture, Amazon, was a business built on books. “He was interested in reading” and he “knew something about the habits of readers,” Graham said.

“I think Jeff had his head screwed on pretty well,” Graham added.

Graham hoped that Bezos would be able to help transform the Post from a local print-focused publication to a globally recognized digital brand. “It seemed to us that ownership by somebody who had immense knowledge of the future, of technology, of ways to deliver information to readers brought a big plus with it,” Graham said.

Graham was right. Under Bezos’ ownership the Post went from hemorrhaging advertising revenue to becoming a profitable business in 2016, and continuing to be profitable not just in 2017, but also in 2018, CNN has learned.

Bezos “has brought masses of technological talent” to the Post, says Graham. Since the acquisition, the paper has hired more than 250 people growing its newsroom to about 900, developed a brand new content management system and started licensing it, and is trailblazing in the community engagement game by being present and active on platforms such as Reddit and TikTok.

The Washington Post’s transition from a local print paper to a national news outlet was crystallized when publisher Fred Ryan announced in September 2017 that it had “crossed the 1 million mark for paid digital-only subscribers,” a number that has now grown to over 1.5 million.

Did Bezos save the Post? “Jeff would be the first person to tell you he does not have ‘The Answer’ — with a capital T and a capital A. But there’s nobody that does,” Graham said. “How people are going to get information in the 21st century is still an open question,” but what Bezos brought to the table was key in righting the ship.

Bezos said publicly that he had to “do some soul-searching” before getting involved with The Washington Post. He didn’t know anything about the newspaper business, but through his conversations with Graham he became convinced of the importance of taking on the challenge.

Six years into his ownership of the Post, Bezos often speaks about how rewarding the experience has been. “I know that when I’m 90, it’s going to be one of the things I’m most proud of, that I took on the Washington Post and helped them through a very rough transition,” he said in an interview in 2018.

Graham said he is pleased that Bezos conceives of his relationship with the Post in such a long-term time frame: “[H]e’s an extraordinarily abled business man. And both his technology brilliance and his business brilliance will come in very handy to the Washington Post over his lifetime.”