After years of shrinking ambition at The Washington Post, Jeff Bezos has the paper thinking global domination.
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In April, six months after her family sold the newspaper it had controlled for eight decades to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth walked onstage in the paper’s auditorium to reverse what had been the signature strategy of her six years at the helm. Since she was named publisher in February 2008, a year the newspaper division of The Washington Post Company declared a loss of $193 million, Weymouth had sought to codify the Post’s identity as a paper “For and about Washington.” While touted as a strategy to leverage the Post’s brand of national politics reporting in the digital era, “For and about Washington” was, in the grand tradition of Beltway wordsmithing, a phrase meant to put a positive spin on a period of retrenchment.
As a practical matter, “For and about Washington” meant the Post no longer covered stories beyond its circulation area unless they had a direct link to political Washington or a federal government interest.
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At the time of the sale to Bezos, Donald Graham, Weymouth’s uncle and the chairman of The Washington Post Company, explained that he and his niece felt unsure of the direction in which to take the paper, or how to reverse years of declining revenues. He had approached Bezos as a buyer, he said, because the billionaire could offer deep pockets, a digital brain, and, between the two, a way forward.
Now a Bezos employee, Weymouth’s task onstage that April day was to explain to the newsroom that the new way forward was effectively the opposite of the course she had charted. According to a number of people who heard the talk, Weymouth recounted the paper’s efforts under her “For and about Washington” strategy before announcing that the Post was now “pivoting” to a strategy that focused on dramatically building its national and international audience. She pumped her fist in the air for emphasis and declared, “This is the number one priority for the entire company.”
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Editors and reporters talk about the Post becoming a “global” paper. They say that the Post will create a news “bundle” that will repackage all the elements of the print newspaper in a way that readers will pay for in digital form. Using tablets and other devices, Bezos aims to recreate the intimate, cohesive, and somewhat linear consumption experience of old media in a way that makes sense for digital. The newsroom has also been told that the paper will cultivate an audience of 100 million unique visitors. Or paid digital subscribers. One hundred million something. They say that, unlike traditional newspaper publishers with their notions of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands, their new owner thinks in terms of hundreds of millions. I asked editor Marty Baron why the 100-million number kept coming up in my conversations. What did it refer to? “We don’t have a set goal for a hundred million of anything, okay?” he told me. “We just want to grow, that’s all. There’s a desire to increase our number of unique visitors by a very significant degree.”
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One reporter told me of the inevitable confusion among the staff, given Weymouth’s sudden push for a strategy of expansion that is “directly contrary” to the previous one of narrowing the paper’s focus. “The pendulum swung all the way over and now it’s swinging all the way back again, without anyone ever saying how that came to be or why we’re doing this other than that we need more traffic,” he said. “Everyone’s thrilled that we’re hiring again, and hiring really good people for the most part. But it’s not clear to the rank and file how this comes together into a vision for what we want to do and what we want to be. That’s been the problem for 15 years.”
An editor added: “I think Bezos wants us to be everything for everyone, the same way Amazon is.” Like many people interviewed for this article, the editor was granted anonymity to allow him to speak candidly.
Despite the confusion, most everyone agrees that the complexities of expansion are a far better problem to have than those in the years of retreat. “In the old times,” said Cameron Barr, the national editor, referring to a period that ended less than a year ago, “I used to militate against the word ‘still.’ It would come out of people’s mouths all the time and it drove me crazy. ‘We still have great reporters. We still can do great journalism. We’re still The Washington Post.’ I had a jihad against the word ‘still,’ because implicit in that word is the idea that we are totally screwed. But now you don’t hear the word ‘still.’ ”
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That this man purchased The Washington Post has the potential to be one of the more significant events in the history of modern American journalism. At some indiscernible point in the last 10 to 15 years, the Post, the newspaper that brought down a president, bowed out of the competition to be the best newspaper in the country and entered into a rivalry with its own past. The paper still did great journalism, but The New York Timesbecame the country’s only outlet with the ambition and the resources to cover the world with depth and intelligence.
Then $250 million changed hands, and the paper that bowed out was suddenly captained by the digital-era equivalent of Alexander the Great. And not only that, but it instantly became the only member of an industry facing massive digital transformation to be owned by a man who had wrought that transformation—and who had the money to do it again. It went from being a newspaper in retreat to being the only legacy media company in America that can consider itself a technology property.
The Post is once again hungry to be a dominant force in American journalism, and the newsroom senses that the Graham era has been sealed off behind them. The only way out is to move forward. “I think Bezos is giving us a chance to show what we would have done if we had had that runway all along,” one editor said. “If we don’t figure it out, I would not blame the owner for replacing all of us.”
Listen to what Bezos says, or watch where he puts his money and directs his focus, and you can see how he’s starting to overlay the brilliance of Amazon onto the scaffolding ofThe Washington Post. The journalism isn’t what he plans to revamp, or necessarily invest significant new funds in—the new hires notwithstanding—at least initially. His main focus is the pipeline: reaching the maximum number of customers by putting thePost’s journalism in a package (a tablet, a mobile site) that will draw the greatest number of readers. As it has been with Amazon, his obsession at the Post is finding a way to integrate a product into millions of people’s lives in a way they haven’t yet experienced.