Jeff Bezos has come to offer his condolences to the Washington Post. The CEO of Amazon boarded a plane in Seattle late in the evening to arrive on time for the funeral in Washington on this morning.
It is Oct. 29, a grey fall day, and the established Washington elites are gathered in front of the National Cathedral: senior politicians, publishers and top journalists past and present. They have come to bury Ben Bradlee, a legend in the journalism world. He was editor-in-chief when the Post uncovered the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s, bringing down then President Richard Nixon and securing a permanent spot for the paper in the American history books.
The glorious past is being celebrated once again on this day. The service is a festival of remembrance, commemorating the best days of the Postand its values as an independent, incorruptible and tenacious newspaper.
Bezos, wearing an atypical tie, is standing at the entrance to the church, holding a smartphone to his ear. At the memorial ceremony, he looks a little lost as he moves through the crowd. This is not his world, but thePost is now his newspaper. He bought the paper in August 2013, probably saving it from demise in the process. With $250 million (€220 million) of his personal fortune, the Amazon founder acquired the newspaper from its publishers, the Graham family, which was at a loss over how to lead the once proud newspaper into the digital future.
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Until a little over a year ago, the Post was a newspaper in a “we’re still here” twilight state. Circulation was declining, as were sales, more than 400 jobs had been cut since 2003 and it was unclear whether the paper stood a chance of surviving. The editorial staff clung to the fact that thePost was still a good newspaper and was still winning Pulitzer prizes — in short, that it was still the Washington Post. But that “we’re still here” attitude was also tinged with an odor of decline.
Since August 2013, a new calendar has begun for the 137-year-old newspaper: B.B. — before Bezos, and A.B. — after Bezos. The Amazon CEO has injected new energy into the editorial staff. Instead of simply bringing in cash to allow the staff to continue the status quo, he plunged the Post into a period of cultural change, determined that the paper would reinvent itself and escape the confines of the printed page.
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But what exactly is Bezos up to at the Washington Post? Is he trying to turn the old world of newspaper publishers upside-down and provide them with an answer to the question on everyone’s mind: How can journalism survive on the Web? Or is the Post ultimately nothing but an exciting hobby for someone who doesn’t know what to do with all his money?
Bezos’s motives remain a mystery to those at the Post. “But it’s ridiculous to believe that Jeff Bezos came here with a magic pill to solve all the media industry’s problems within a year — that’s a preposterous notion. If he knew already what worked, we would not need any experiments,” says Executive Editor Marty Baron.
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Shortly after the sale to Bezos, Baron and a small entourage flew to Seattle, with a wish list in their pockets. The meeting took place in Bezos’s home. But instead of simply writing a check, the Amazon CEO had some questions. He wanted Baron to explain the purpose of various projects to him. “The discussions we had with him were mostly about: How do we draw large numbers of customers?” says Baron. Baron often uses the word “customers” instead of “readers” these days, and it isn’t quite clear whether this is intentional or simply the result of his biweekly telephone conversations with Bezos. Before the trip to Seattle, the Postteam had worked up some numbers on the costs of various proposals, and how much revenue each program could potentially generate. “We put down numbers because we did not want to have nothing, but we told Bezos right from the beginning that these forecasts were based on nothing but guesswork on our part,” says Baron. Apparently Bezos didn’t care.
One of the first ideas to get implemented was the “Morning Mix” on the website, a collection of the most important stories from social networks and online media like BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post, which a Postteam edits and rewrites daily. As banal as it seems, the new feature is a departure from a long-held doctrine: The website is the sovereign territory of Post journalists, and anything that hasn’t been reported by staff doesn’t make it onto the site. Since May, anyone from ordinary people to politicians and academics can publish highly opinionated articles in a category called “PostEverything.” Both ideas were controversial,” says Fredrick Kunkle, a 14-year veteran editor at the Post. “But we understood that we have to open up to gain more readers online.”
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The spirit of optimism under Bezos has even convinced the skeptics. After years of almost weekly farewell parties in the newsroom, the paper is now hiring larger numbers of journalists once again. About 100 new staffers were added last year, mostly experienced bloggers and multimedia journalists, but also classic journalists like Pulitzer Prize winner Amy Ellis Nut. Popular political blogs on the website, like “Wonkblog” and “The Fix,” have been expanded. “The optimism is infectious,” says Kunkle.
The editorial department, accustomed to thinking in smaller and smaller terms, has been overcome by a feeling that the sky is the limit. The website’s user numbers are growing, with 42 million users in September, a 47-percent increase over last year. Potential numbers on the order of 100 million or more are being talked about in the newsroom. They are fictitious numbers with no basis in reality, and yet they say a lot about the new thrill of the chase among “Posties,” the insider term for journalists at the Post. “Bezos has unchained our ambitions, the feeling is that nothing can stop the Post now,” says Kunkle.
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“The web gives us a second chance to be a truly national and international paper and even more: the preferred destination of American readers,” says Executive Editor Baron. And this time Bezos, an Internet titan, is giving them the chance to take advantage of that opportunity.