Bezos, Bored Billionaire Theory and What Happens to the Post?

NATIONAL HARBOR, MD - SEPTEMBER 19: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, founder of space venture Blue Origin and owner of The Washington Post, participates in an event hosted by the Air Force Association September 19, 2018 in Na... NATIONAL HARBOR, MD - SEPTEMBER 19: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, founder of space venture Blue Origin and owner of The Washington Post, participates in an event hosted by the Air Force Association September 19, 2018 in National Harbor, Maryland. Bezos talked about innovating in large organizations as well as staying on the cutting edge in the space industry. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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There’s a big and very long piece this morning about the travails of The Washington Post published at The Atlantic. It’s a reported piece by media reporter Brian Stelter. There’s a lot there. It runs almost ten thousand words. But the gist seems pretty clear, which is that the new villain is Jeff Bezos. “Villain” is a bit strong, certainly. What I really mean is Jeff Bezos as the root of the problem, a realization that some at the Post appear to be coming around to. And not because he’s done anything bad. By all accounts he’s been entirely legit on editorial non-interference. Write whatever you want about me and Amazon, etc.

The issue is that the Post essentially has an absentee, hands-off owner. And that has created perhaps not a vacuum at the top, but a lack of direction. Executives who weren’t getting the job done were kept around too long. Other executives were hired to shake things up but they weren’t the right fit. Now you have a CEO and publisher, Will Lewis, whose tenure is clearly and perhaps fatally damaged by the mix of staff revolt and miscellaneous scandals. And yet he’s still in place while Bezos is touring the Greek isles on his mega-yacht with his fiancee.

Let’s begin by noting that this is the impression created by a single article. Stelter is a really good media reporter. But any single article isn’t gospel. This is no dig at Stelter, just a general caveat that would apply to any single piece. But some key elements of it ring true. And what jumps out at me most is how clearly this narrative fits in with our anonymous TPM Reader’s “bored billionaire” model of early 21st century tycoon media saviors, a theory which we published earlier this month. The idea there is that our era’s moneybags media buyers aren’t looking to demonstrate civic virtue by losing a ton of money. They’re looking to be the one who can solve the riddle: make a media company profitable and awesome. But it often turns out not to be that easy. And then things get weird. Eventually they get bored and move on to something else.

Three observations.

First, my impression from the recent events at the Post is not that Bezos said, “hey, I need some of that sharkish Fleet Street/Murdoch edge to whip this place into line.” Or, if he thought that, I’m not sure he understood all the implications of doing that. I’m sure he talked to various people and got advice and worked with head hunting firms. But I don’t get the impression he knew fully what he was getting into. His triage efforts at the Post since things went really sideways over the last month or so really makes it seem like that. At some very high level of generality, Bezos appears to have been told, these guys are the ones who will fix the situation — and he hired them to fix it. But it’s resulted in the current semi-trainwreck. One of the two new executives, or the one who was supposed to start after the election as the new head of the newsroom, have already been sent packing.

This impression of Bezos not being a hands-on enough owner appears, based on this article, to be taking hold with many at the Post, which brings me to my second observation. You have a lot of people saying what’s necessary is for Bezos to really immerse himself in the mores of the paper, where it’s placed in the journalism ecosystem, the culture of the news desks, and so forth. But who are we kidding? Bezos is off living his best life island hopping in Greece on his megayacht. He’s not going to want to get under the hood as a hands-on owner of the Post. That seems absurd to me. They’re imagining someone on the model of Katherine Graham, someone who had a deep respect for the institution, was hands off on any funny business with editorial but sweated the details and was there to empower the people who needed to be empowered and jettison those who didn’t. It strikes me as pure fantasy to imagine that Bezos is up for anything like that.

Jeff Bezos is already one of the most successful founder/entrepreneurs in the history of capitalism. If you think about it, this is really not an exaggeration. Whether you like Bezos or what he created isn’t relevant to this question. He really is that high up in the rankings. He doesn’t need this shit with the Post, coddling an aggrieved newsroom, taking charge and making hard decisions about executive hires, trying to figure out how to build audience and make the company profitable. Albeit at an infinitely smaller scale and certainly not a peer comparison, I know about sweating running a media business during media apocalypses. It’s a huge and agonizing slog. Most of your genius ideas don’t work. Because if it was easy or the solutions were obvious everyone else wouldn’t be failing. You fail and fail and fail and one thing half works and you say that was your plan all along. It’s pretty thankless and it requires a lot of focus. And there’s a good chance you’ll fail. Is Bezos ready to get his hands dirty like that? He already decided he was done running Amazon in his mid-50s. Why on earth would he want to un-retire to work on this?

Plan A didn’t work. Plan B was Will Lewis and that’s probably failing. What’s Plan C? You have to seriously wonder when Bezos just gets annoyed, decides he doesn’t need the aggravation and unloads the whole thing on Alden Capital. And that of course is where the whole thing gets potentially quite ugly. People aren’t going to want to pay a lot of money for a company that is currently losing between $50 and $70 million a year, has a news room in active revolt and feels its oats because it’s already defeated two hot shot executives.

Final observation. A lot of people with agendas have made a lot of hay about the Post’s business decline. Many of those are either unfair or misleading. The Post isn’t the only place to see serious audience declines after the end of the Trump presidency. The fairer question is how things were allowed to get this dire. How exactly do you get to running a $70 million annual deficit or losing half your audience and not already working on some major retrenchment or restructuring. It reminds me of an observation I’ve made in other contexts. Mostly being a tiny uncapitalized company sucks. But you can actually make it a strategic advantage in some cases. If you’re big you have enough padding and heft to assume the trends won’t affect you. You have the luxury to figure you’ll buck the trends. When you’re tiny you know the trends will hit you first so you better come up with two or three plans to deal with it immediately. It makes you nimble because you have zero margin for error. That makes you really creative and you know you can’t ever wait.

I still don’t really know how more than three years went by at the Post before there were any serious alarm bells sounded. But my impression of how this happened goes something like this. The Post seems to have started losing subscribers as soon as the Trump presidency ended. I assumed they looked around and said, not our fault. The same thing is happening everywhere. That’s true. It was. You probably extrapolate from that that it’s happening to everyone, ergo it’s not your fault, ergo you’re not doing anything wrong. You’re big; you have a wealthy owner. You have to give it time. These judgements are all true as far as it goes but are basically irrelevant. It’s like looking both ways, getting run over by a car and saying, I looked both ways, this one’s on the car.

It’s hard not to think that at some level things were allowed to get to a crisis state because of the accurate knowledge that Bezos could underwrite basically any level of losses.

That is, until he wasn’t. Which apparently is now.

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