Ever since Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos acquired the Washington Post for $250 million in a bombshell announcement two weeks ago, there has been an orgy of speculation about what he will or won’t (or should or shouldn’t) do with the struggling newspaper — including some by us. But a profile of the Amazon executive in the New York Times this weekend should make one thing perfectly clear to both outside observers of the media business and to staffers of the Post itself: there is roughly zero chance that Bezos bought the Post so that he could just keep it running the way it is and not make any changes.
As the NYT piece points out, Bezos is sometimes underestimated because of his somewhat diminutive stature and a famously goofy laugh, which can make him seem more like a wacky high-school science teacher than a billionaire entrepreneur. But according to those who have worked with him over the past couple of decades, he is a control freak who loves to mess with things — as former employee Steve Yegge put it in a post he wrote in 2011:
“We’re talking about a guy who in all seriousness has said on many public occasions that people should be paying him to work at Amazon. He hands out little yellow stickies with his name on them, reminding people ‘who runs the company’ when they disagree with him. The guy is a regular… well, Steve Jobs, I guess. Except without the fashion or design sense. Bezos is super smart; don’t get me wrong. He just makes ordinary control freaks look like stoned hippies.”
Fascinated by broken business models
James Marcus, who was Amazon employee #55, told the New York Times something similar — that underestimating Bezos would be a gigantic mistake, and that he almost certainly has plans to fix the Washington Post and to somehow reinvent journalism for a digital age. As Marcus put it:
“Jeff may be outwardly goofy, with that trademark laugh, but he’s a very tough guy. If he goes even halfway through with his much-vaunted reinvention of journalism, there is no way he’s not going to break some eggs.”
While some have speculated that Bezos may have bought the Post solely because he wants to curry favor in Washington or because he feels some kind of charitable impulse towards journalism and the financially-struggling media business, Marcus — who is now the executive editor of Harper’s magazine — told the NYT that he thinks the Amazon founder’s purchase was driven by a desire to figure out how to fix the newspaper, and possibly journalism as well:
“Bezos is fascinated by broken business models. And whatever else you think of newspapers, the business model is broken.”
In other words, it seems unlikely Bezos will just sit back and allow the Washington Post to continue doing journalism or the media business the same way it always has — the same way that has led to hundreds of millions of dollars in losses and rounds of layoffs. What he plans to do remains a mystery, but I tried to come up with a few helpful suggestions in a recent post.