Bradlees For Bezos
By Tony Palmeri
From the October 2013 edition of The SCENE
Billionaire Jeff Bezos, founder of the wildly successful Amazon.com, stunned the media world recently when he purchased the Washington Post from the legendary Graham family for $250 million in cash. A 44 percent decline in operating revenue over the past six years put the family in the selling mood. Bezos’ reputation for innovation and experimentation convinced the Grahams that he’s capable of constructing a digital age business model that might rescue the Post and maybe even the entire newspaper industry.Being a billionaire allows Bezos to take the Post private. He won’t have to report quarterly earnings or obsess over how to maximize short term profit for investors. In other words, he will have a freedom to experiment not enjoyed by many of his corporate press competitors.
Those hoping that Bezos will shift the Post firmly to the political Left or Right will probably be disappointed. Unlike his billionaire brethren George Soros and Warren Buffett, Bezos doesn’t posture as the “I’m filthy rich but I feel your pain” friend of the downtrodden global masses. Similarly, he’s shown little sign of being a right wing kooky crackpot like Trump or the Koch Brothers.
Bezos strikes me as the “hipster” billionaire, the cool digitarian who paved the way for Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and other new wave “job creators.” These peppy plutocrats see themselves as new millennium revolutionaries, with revolution defined as the ability of every person to purchase consumer goods inexpensively with one click and share that experience with their virtual friends.
True to the hipster form, Bezos assures Post employees and readers that change can only happen collectively. He told the Post: “In my experience, the way invention, innovation and change happen is through team effort. There’s no lone genius who figures it all out and sends down the magic formula. You study, you debate, you brainstorm and the answers start to emerge.”
He’s yet to announce how this team effort will be accomplished, but I’m expecting that in the near future Post employees will get a memo saying something like this: “Dear valued Post employee. If we are to change the culture of this company, I need to hear your opinion as to what direction we should take. I believe the greatest ideas are always stated in 150 words or less. Please write up your idea and put them in the suggestion box outside your office. You’ll notice that we are calling it the “Bradlee Box” in honor of BenBradlee, the former great editor of the Post and one of my heroes growing up. In fact, here at the Post ideas will now be called Bradlees. So please put your Bradlees in the Bradlee Box! The best Bradlees will receive $200 Amazon gift cards.”
Shortly after sending the memo, Bezos open the first floor Bradlee Box and notices that it already has three Bradlees in it. Bradlee #1 is from a Post employee identified as a “senior editor:” Thanks for the opportunity Jeff. It’s about time we had someone running this company who really understands the business side of news. The Post has to find ways to prevent readers from getting our fine product for free. Let’s create a digital paywall with teeth. Let’s take on the leeching aggregator sites like Huffington Post, in court if we have to. And why have we rolled over and played dead in response to Craigslist? Craig Newmark went to war with newspapers, and much to his benefit found the corporate press armies in retreat. Let’s fight to get back those advertisers!
Bradlee #2 comes from someone identified as “senior reporter on the White House beat:” Websites like politico.com have figured out how to generate an audience for political reporting in a digital age. Politico privileges the views of powerful insiders more than we do, and they even find a way to get readers interested in pointless tripe. For example, I saw a headline over there that said, “Robert Gibbs,Maureen Dowd trade barbs.” At the Post our journalism quality has fallen, but we still aim for the Woodward/Bernstein/Bradlee Watergate standard. Maybe we can only continue to do that if we balance it with more pointless tripe?
Bradlee #3 comes from someone identified as a “20 year old summer intern majoring in Journalism at a Midwestern university:” Hey Mr. Bezos. I don’t have too much to say, but I thought you might be interested in this quote I found in the textbook for my Intro to Journalism class. It’s from the legendary newsman William Allen White: “The owners of newspaper investments, whether they be bankers, stockholders of a corporation, or individuals, feel a rather keen sense of financial responsibility, and they pass their anxiety along to . . . managing editors . . . . copy desk men, reporters or what not. The sense of property goes thrilling down the line. It produces a slant and a bias that becomes . . . a prejudice against any man or any thing or any cause that seriously affects the right, title, or interest of all other capital, however invested.”
Bezos reads the three Bradlees and immediately launches an inquiry into the Post’s intern hiring practices. “Criticisms of capital won’t help save the newspaper industry,” reasons Bezos. And thus continued the hipster billionaire digital revolution.