TOPICS > Nation

Can Amazon’s Founder Help Washington Post Turn Page Towards Profit?

August 5, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
The Washington Post Co. announced the sale of their flagship newspaper for $250 million to Jeffrey Bezos, Amazon.com founder and one of the richest men in the world. Ray Suarez sits down with Tom Rosenstiel of the American Press Institute to get his take on the sale and the challenges for print media companies to be profitable.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: Now: the sale of a legendary newspaper to an Internet legend.

The Washington Post Company sold its flagship paper to Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, for $250 million.One family, the Graham, owned The Post for four generations. The paper faced financial difficulties. Revenues declined for seven consecutive years, including losses of $49 million in the first quarter of this year.

For more on the surprising sale, we turn to Tom Rosenstiel, the executive director of the American Press Institute. Rosenstiel was a veteran newspaper reporter before becoming the founder and director of the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism for many years.

And, Tom, if you live somewhere else in the country or if you’re one of the millions of American adults who used to be a newspaper reader and isn’t one anymore, why is it important that this pillar of American journalism has been sold?

TOM ROSENSTIEL, American Press Institute: Well, The Washington Post is the number one paper in the nation’s capital.

It’s the — it’s got readers all over the world who want to know what’s going on in Washington. And it’s one of the great journalism institutions in the United States. What happens in the federal government, there are more reporters at The Washington Post trying to cover that and understand that than anywhere else. So we all have a stake in what happens at this newspaper.

Related Video

RAY SUAREZ: Katharine Weymouth’s note to the staff — she’s the publisher — Chairman Donald Graham’s remarks to the staff, both took pains to point out that Jeff Bezos was personally buying the paper, not acquiring it for Amazon.

Why make that distinction? Why is it important?

TOM ROSENSTIEL: It’s actually part of a trend.

We are moving from the publicly traded corporation era of media ownership and particularly newspaper ownership back toward individual owners. John Henry, the owner of the Boston Red Sox, earlier this week announced that he was buying The Boston Globe. Aaron Kushner, who is also an Internet mogul, owns The Orange County Register.

Bezos is famous for resisting short-term pressure and he’s very customer-focused. So this insulates The Post from any of the pressures that a corporation would have — publicly traded corporation would have — in the way it stewards the paper.

RAY SUAREZ: He is a man who has understood how to use the Internet as a commerce vehicle perhaps as well as anybody on planet Earth. Is that a good fit for a newspaper ownership in the 21st century?

TOM ROSENSTIEL: Yes.

The readership of newspapers is going online. It’s going mobile. Newspapers have held on to their readership if you look at total audience much better than many other media. According to Scarborough data, 59 percent of people 18 to 24 read newspaper media content every week.

This is a surprising number to people who think that newspapers have become irrelevant. But they are encountering that media on Facebook and social media and on digital devices, on mobile devices. So understanding how to engage audiences there and understanding how to monetize those devices is the future of media in America and worldwide.

RAY SUAREZ: Is this story really the story of the modern American newspaper? The Post Company, it’s not like they didn’t try. They got rid of properties that weren’t performing. They bought Slate, the online magazine. They diversified their holdings, bought a real estate magazine when houses were buying and selling like crazy in America before the recession.

They really did try to right-size the stable for the 21st century, didn’t they?

TOM ROSENSTIEL: Yes. What’s happened with newspapers is that they were going through this transition, and then the economy turned in 2009.

So you have this sort of vortex of two things accelerating. And newspapers are adapting in many ways more than some other media. Television, the television industry, for instance, is less active online. The advertising model has held up a little bit better for television.

But that urgency has led to a lot of innovation, particularly in the delivery of content. The real crisis facing print publishers really is more a revenue crisis than it is an audience crisis, particularly for most community newspapers around the country, which is what The Post is.

RAY SUAREZ: A lot of the attention is going to go to what happened to The Post and why it’s selling to Bezos.

But let’s talk about it from Bezos’ point of view, 49 years old.Why would he buy into a business that’s perceived as failing, where millions of young adults have no use for it at all and the generation coming behind them has even less use for it?

TOM ROSENSTIEL: Well, I think that’s something of a misnomer.

It was — 20 years ago, before the Internet, there was really signs that younger people were not turning to traditional media. But what’s happened with the Internet and particularly with mobile devices, they have made the audience for newspapers and other traditional media brands younger and more deeply engaged.

People read long form on mobile devices, even smartphones, more than they did on computers. The attention span is longer.These things are in our pocket. They’re with us all day long. When you’re trapped in line, you will read a longer piece.

So, someone like Bezos, who is now thinking about his legacy — he’s reached a certain age, one of the richest, most successful businessmen in America — is probably thinking about, how do I save an institution and be known for something more than just being rich?

RAY SUAREZ: Tom Rosenstiel, thanks a lot.

TOM ROSENSTIEL: Thank you.