by Evette Alexander
Serial innovator Jeff Bezos is known for reinventing industries around customer needs, pioneering such concepts as online retail and tablet readers. Now, his curious purchase of the Washington Post has the world wondering if, how and to what end he will transform the daily news
On August 5th, Washington Post staff gathered to hear shocking headlines from owner Donald Graham. He had sold the paper that had been in his family for 80 years to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos for $250 million
Graham wrote that he arrived at the decision to sell after seven years of declining revenues in a troubled industry that raised “questions to which we have no answers.” According to Bercovici writing in Forbes attempts at online innovation failed to compensate for the mass diversion of advertising revenues to Internet giants, of which Amazon alone captured $610 million last year (Bercovici, 2013). With Bezos, he sees a chance for the company to succeed.
In a letter to employees, Jeff Bezos was quick to reassure that the company’s core values “do not need changing;” however, the business must and will change. He communicated a vague desire to “invent” and “experiment” in order to understand and provide what readers want – leaving everyone to guess what that could mean.
Old media savior or category killer?
Without a clear road map, some cast Bezos as an “old media savior”, a philanthropist who bought the paper as a public service to “re-invest in the infrastructure of our public intelligence” Bob Woodward, (of the infamous Post duo that broke Watergate) envisions Bezos using his “deep pockets” to “hyper invest” in investigative journalism However, Bezos – not his family trust – bought the paper.
Others fear him as the Fourth Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The “category killer” often accredited with single handedly destroying the traditional book industry now has his sights on news print. Will he retire the presses to cut costs and drive content to Kindle?
Bezos once indicated a key “problem” for newspapers was offering print and digital at the same time, suggesting print would be obsolete within 20 years . Bezos may also see his “duty to readers” differently than journalists). What if the all-powerful reader prefers celebrity boob job stories over political coverage? How far change could extend when faced with a tradeoff between market share and the values he pledged to uphold?
A friend in Washington (DC)
Bezos is quick to remind us of his “day job,” lest we forget his primary interest is Amazon. Would he use the paper’s influence to protect his brainchild in a political battle? The Washington Post still has a powerful voice in the capital where politicians are starting to turn a sheriff’s eye to online quasi-monopolies like Google, Apple iTunes and Facebook. Although Bezos lobbies for Amazon’s regulatory interests in Washington, the Post is not to serve owner interests But, as one of its former editors points out, “mixing commerce and journalism is always fraught with its own perils on the ethics side” [Hagey, K. and G. Bensinger (2013) “For Bezos: A new puzzle,” The Wall Street Journal. 7 August 2013]
Experienced trailblazer meets new frontier
The Post paints a rosy future for itself under Bezos, expecting he will “marry quality journalism with commercial success in the digital era.” Bezos’ track record is impressive to be sure. He started Amazon.com in his garage in 1995, which now includes devices, cloud computing, and is emerging as an online media platform. He successfully replicated the online retail model across Europe, Asia and South America. If the Post’s new model proves successful, we may see him do the same abroad.
Clues into Bezos’ strategic philosophies lie in his annual letter to Amazon shareholders. He remains focused on creating long-term value over short term returns, so we should see him making significant upfront investments and enduring low revenue streams for future payoffs He will seek actively to delight customers by over-delivering, lowering prices and anticipating their needs before competition demands it (Amazon.com, 2013). He sees failure as necessary for invention, yet is demanding and attentive to detail. He pushes for innovation, with a regular reminder that “it’s still Day 1” for the Internet.
Perhaps now, it’s Day 1 for the newspaper.
Evette Treewater Alexander is Manager of Strategy & Market Intelligence at ADT, the leading provider of home security and automation services in North America. She is pursuing a Global MBA at the Manchester Business School and looks forward to her next workshop in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where she previously lived and worked as a strategic marketing consultant. The blog post was developed from an assignment she carried out for the Global Events & Leadership course.