Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has assumed the challenge of rebooting The Washington Post and might change politics in the process.
Bezos instantly became one of the most powerful players in Washington this week when he purchased the 135-year-old newspaper for $250 million. The multi-billionaire Amazon CEO, who revolutionized the way people buy everything from books to toilet paper online, is expected to bring a new style to the capital's biggest paper.
“He approaches things very much as an innovator. I see his world view as being much less political and much less partisan than it is sort of logic-based, explorer-based,” said journalist Mark Leibovich, who profiled Bezos and four other tech CEOs in his 2002 book The New Imperialists.
“He probably does not see this as a political purchase,” Leibovich said, but as a “source of exploration.”
In a letter to Post employees, Bezos focused on the need for the paper to change its news operations but was silent on its flagging power on the political scene.
“There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy. We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment,” Bezos said. “I’m excited and optimistic about the opportunity for invention.”
The Amazon founder said he would continue to be based out of Seattle, or “the other Washington,” as he wrote in the letter to the paper’s employees, a clear signal that he intends to bring an outsider’s perspective to the task.
Bezos has so far only dabbled in politics. He and his wife have donated $28,000 to Democratic candidates and $4,000 to Republicans since 1998, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
They also made a massive $2.5 million donation last year for a Washington state campaign to legalize same-sex marriage.
Amazon, on the other hand, has kept active in the capital. The online retailer spent $2.5 million on lobbying last year and $1.7 million in the first half of this year. The company has lobbied on online privacy regulation, cybersecurity and immigration reform.
Amazon is currently engaged in a lobbying war with eBay over online sales tax legislation.
The company had battled state-level attempts to tax online purchases, but is now backing federal legislation on the issue. The company's planned network of distribution centers means that many purchases on its site would be taxed anyway under current law.
"The tech industry has gone through a sea change in recent years, from the belief that Washington was not relevant to their business to the realization that Washington very much impacts their economics," said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist.
Lehane said Amazon was savvier than other tech companies by realizing early on the importance of engaging policymakers on tax issues.
Bezos is part of a generation of "uber-wealthy founders, investors, CEOs and early option employees" who are interested in the world around them, Lehane said.
"In particular, these are folks who made their money by creating things based on some kind of disruptive or revolutionary big idea and, as such, have an interest in ideas," he said. "Thus, you are seeing these folks spending their money in ways that are different than those who made their money in finance: They are pursuing ideas. Rockets to space. Combating climate change or poverty. Buying media outlets."
Critics will be keeping close watch on the Post’s reporting for coverage that seems to advance the financial interests of Bezos or Amazon. Any perceived agenda could undermine the paper's reputation.
“I would be really surprised if the Bezos's Washington Post is one defined by a really discernible political agenda,” Leibovich said.
“I don't really see him as a political thinker,” he added.
Many are still struggling to process the news about Bezos’s unexpected purchase of the Post, given the shakeup it represents for the media-dominated city.
The big question on everyone’s mind is whether Bezos can solve the puzzle that’s eluded executives for years: how to make one of the country’s few remaining legacy newspapers profitable in the digital age.
“No one has quite figured out how, in the traditional model, to reinvent the [news] industry for the next generation and beyond,” said Joe Lockhart, managing director at the Glover Park Group and former White House press secretary under former President Clinton, who briefly met Bezos at the White House Correspondents Dinner one year.
“This feels very much like someone who sees an undervalued property that he can make different, more interesting and more viable,” he added.
Bezos can also leverage his extensive experience working in the information business.
“It makes sense to me that he would be intrigued by this as a problem he wants to solve,” said Glenn Frankel, who worked at the Post for 27 years and is now the director of the journalism school at the University of Texas at Austin. “It really is his field.”
“He started very much with legacy businesses, and he’s reinvented them for the Internet age,” Frankel said.
Ironically, Bezos is now trying to save a business that Internet companies like his have helped destroy.
Google, Craigslist and scores of other sites have created new ways to reach an audience, decimating the value of classifieds and newspaper ads.
During the course of his reporting on Bezos, Leibovich remembers the Amazon CEO had expressed an interest in newspapers' operations and readership.
“We had a really long interview, and at the end, he was asking us about how newspapers worked. He met [Washington Post CEO] Don [Graham] a couple of times,” Leibovich said.
“He did seem to have a great deal of respect for the brand and the tradition,” Leibovich said. “He's a disruptor in many ways, but I remember him being really genuinely curious about how our business worked. It seems like he approached Don the same way over the years.”