Last week's announcement that Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos would buy the Washington Post ignited a media-wide frenzy of speculation about his motives. It couldn't have been purely financial, experts agreed, with the company facing its seventh straight year of declining revenues. But was it political power? Confidence in the kind of technological innovation he's brought to Amazon? Even pure philanthropy?
These discussions have taken for granted that economics alone can explain Bezos' decision. In doing so, they're missing a crucial aspect of the debate. Institutions like the Post are attractive to investors (one writer has called them "billionaires' latest trophies") because of their authority, their prestige, their talent — factors that largely aren't quantifiable. And yet, it's these factors that are in danger of being disregarded through the market-driven model that entrepreneurs like Bezos bring.
Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes was among the first to signal these more nebulous motives, when he related Bezos' purchase last week to his own rationale in buying the struggling New Republic. Strong, venerable brands, he said, have never been more important. However shaky the financial foundations of places like the Post, the trust and prestige built up over decades is exactly what keeps those pillars sturdy.
I'd go even further. In many ways, a newspaper doesn't fit into normal market lingo — the value of a newspaper is only tangentially related to its profit (even if it's the profit that enables it to function). More than a business, the Post is a jumbled melee of writers, ideas, and commentary whose strength stems precisely from a certain freedom from red-ink concerns. It's not efficient to send out a writer to pursue an idea for weeks or months, without a firm deadline or punch-in punch-out constraints, without even a requirement that anything ultimately comes of the research. It's not particularly efficient to keep a full staff of writers on staff in the farthest reaches of the world, just to ensure that when something important does happen, they're on it. These things don't necessarily make a profitable business model — but they do allow excellent journalism to happen.
Institutions like the Post are among the few to possess the necessary resources to tell stories like this. These days, raw information has never been more accessible or more available. With it, the amount of commentary on all this data has exploded — and in many ways, this is the embodiment of what a democracy should look like. But behind all the clamor and conversations, we still need deep, sustained journalism uncovering the stories that will last longer than a sound bite.
The Post has the writers and the decades-long cultivation of clout to do this. But in trying to turn the newspaper industry around, investors like Bezos may be in danger of trimming these inefficient methods in exchange for snappier, turnaround reporting. Which brings us to a paradox: making the Post thrive in purely financial terms just might force it to fail in journalistic ones.
For better or for worse, though, the Post needs this influx of cash. Think of great writing as an art. The arts in general really flourish when wealthy, interested parties support them, whether from centuries of royal patronage, or university endowments today to support writing and teaching. We like to think that strong writing, genius even, exists in a vacuum — but business and the arts have never been more entwined. Instead, then, it's up to the business magnates, the Jeff Bezos of the world, to keep in mind what it was that attracted them to companies, and to artistic models, like the Post. And moreso, to understand that buying a newspaper is a more delicate investment than it might initially seem.