When Amazon’s Jeff Bezos was announced as the future owner of the Washington Post, the world was curious. After a little bit of time passed, the deacons of professional journalism did what they often decry – worked themselves into a tizzy of speculation. Notable press critic Jay Rosen of NYU noted that Amazon booted Wikileaks off of its servers as soon as the government asked them to. “That’s not answering the bell for freedom of information. That’s doing what the surveillance state requires, and relying on a legalism to justify it,” he wrote.
Others have been more alarmist. The Post’s own Allan Sloan asked in an op-ed for more disclosure of Bezos’ personal politics: “I’d at least like to hear from Bezos what his beliefs are and to have him reconcile the question of his being a libertarian who’s benefited immensely from taxpayers’ R&D money.”
What are Bezos’ plans and more importantly the philosophy that guided him to buy the Post? We will find out. But there may be much less to it than something to fear.
Many rich people are buying up venerable newspapers lately. John Henry, famous as the owner of the Boston Red Sox, has purchased the Boston Globe. Warren Buffett has picked up no less than 30 dailies all around the nation in recent years. If you are going to buy low and sell high, there is at least one attraction for big money in the daily roll of dead trees that is delivered to so many doorsteps still – they have been beaten down to rock-bottom prices. Few have been able to navigate the changes in technology that have changed how people find and digest their daily diet of news.
It is a good market for an entrepreneur looking for a challenge, at the very least.
That doesn’t seem like reason enough to buy a newspaper, especially a flagship paper like the Washington Post. There has to be much more to it than that, right?
Let’s leave aside the obvious fact that there is still a hunger for news, even if the old business model appears horribly broken. Someone has to figure out how to make this work, and the outlets that manage to survive are probably going to at least have a high quality product and a name brand, much like the Washington Post. If there is more to it than that and the desire for a socially important challenge, the reason may be personal.
Jeff Bezos was the valedictorian at Miami Palmetto High in 1982, the year before I graduated. Before he went on to achieve a degree in computer engineering at Princeton he took the same AP and honors classes that I did. There were great forces in Miami in the early 1980s, but a school like Palmetto was the greatest challenge to everyone with dreams of changing the world. It was, in short, one Hell of a school.
One of the great forces was a great English teacher, Mrs. Sheridan. Wrinkled and ruffled and confined to a wheelchair, her presence was not much to worry anyone. But inside there was a fire that burned many college-bound students on the edge of defining the world on their terms. Her world was an incendiary mix of critical thinking swirled into a heavy brew of the classics. It was a potion that the witches of Macbeth would have gleefully cackled over – and we had to memorize big hunks of that play.
Bezos loves books, of that we can be certain. His original plan for Amazon was not to be the seller of everything in the world, but to be the bookstore that delivered the written word to the masses. That business was lousy, apparently, so Bezos had to outgrow it. But by delivering the Kindle and continuing to support the written word by purchasing Goodreads, Bezos has displayed a passion for what so many have derided into the word “content”.
After changing the way we read books, what can this novelist’s husband do for the written word? Saving the newspapers which connect us to the world through the word is a very logical next step. And it may be as simple as a passion that ignited back when a young man on his way to change the world met a great teacher whom he, like all of us, was desperate to impress.
Does the purchase of the Washington Post really come down to Mrs. Sheridan? That’s too simple, perhaps. But it’s far more logical and heartwarming than a desire to reclaim Rosebud for this potential Charles Foster Kane. What we do know is that Bezos has a love for the written word that only a few of us share. I know where mine came from. Bet his did, too.