In one $250-million swoop, the technology billionaire known for disrupting entire industries has injected himself into Washington as few before him ever could. Jeff Bezos's purchase of The Washington Post ends the Graham family's 80-year run as Washington royalty, and raises serious questions about how the Amazon founder will wear the crown.
Buying Washington's premiere media property could make the 49-year-old tech CEO an instant player in national politics. And while Bezos has never been overtly political, Washington insiders expect him to make his presence felt in time, both inside and outside the paper.
"If the establishment is not nervous, it should be, because essentially the guardian of the establishment just abdicated its throne," Tom Galvin, a former journalist who founded a Washington technology consulting firm, said of the Graham family. "The Silicon Valley libertarian bent is going to be jarring to the political establishment in Washington, and that's probably healthy."
Galvin said many technology leaders distrust Washington and "just want government to stay the hell away." Over time, the editorial page may strike a more libertarian tone, reflecting Silicon Valley's preference of results over process.
While there are not many clues as to how Bezos might run a world-class newspaper, one indicator comes from Business Insider, a site that counts Bezos as an investor. The site's cofounder and editor-in-chief, Henry Blodget, writes that Bezos thinks long-term, so "anyone rooting for The Washington Post to transform into a successful digital business should be thrilled that Jeff Bezos is buying it."
As for what the purchase means for Washington, Blodget told National Journal Daily in an e-mail, "My guess is that Bezos will not interfere with or shape the paper's news coverage at all (other than making sure that readers are interested in it, which is something that many traditional news organizations don't seem to care about)."
For his part, Bezos has said he won't be leading The Post day-to-day and the current leadership team, including Publisher Katharine Weymouth and Executive Editor Marty Baron, will stay in place.
In an e-mail to NJ Daily, Baron said that Bezos "has said he believes in editorial independence and integrity. I'm confident that he recognizes how central they are to our identity and our mission. I sense he'll focus on our business model, that he'll see it as an intellectual and business challenge, and that he'll urge us to think in unconventional ways. I welcome that, and I believe others here do, too."
As Amazon's chief, Bezos "has a fairly hands off attitude towards Washington," said a lobbyist who used to represent the online retailing giant. "They're pretty low-key," the lobbyist said of the company. "They go about their businesses, they go about their work, but they're not ones to seek the Washington, D.C., headlines."
Through July of this year, Amazon spent a relatively modest $1.7 million on lobbying, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Though Bezos and his wife pledged $2.5 million last year to support a gay-marriage referendum in their home state of Washington, Bezos has given only sparingly on the federal level. Washington Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell received the bulk of his campaign contributions.
On the scale of wealthy industry titans who play the political money game—think the Koch brothers and George Soros—Bezos doesn't even rate. Scores of people have contributed or raised more money than he has for candidates or political parties in recent years.
So perhaps it's not surprising that Bezos's announcement wasn't accompanied by much partisan hand-wringing. "This is a fantastic August surprise," one House Republican leadership aide said. "I imagine this drives The Post to the front of the digital news reporting world."
Inside The Post, there was more concern, though many reporters and editors saw the news as a positive sign for the financially ailing newspaper. In a Tuesday afternoon meeting in the newsroom, Baron said he expects Bezos to come in with "big, new ideas" and that the only way to avoid the cuts the paper has experienced in the past is to grow.
"Jeff Bezos disrupted the entire retailing world. It would be nice for us to be the disrupter instead of the disruptee, as we have been. That means we need to go on the offense and not just play defense. I believe he'll come with ideas about how to do that," Baron wrote in an e-mail. "Not only does he understand technology as well as anyone, he has sharp insights into the changing needs and demands of consumers. Meeting those needs and demands is surely the key to growth."
But some Post rank and file wonder how much money Bezos, or any billionaire for that matter, is willing to lose in the meantime. One Post reporter described it as "probably the best case of all the worst-case scenarios."
And just another sign of a rapidly changing Washington.
"Psychologically, it's all part of a broader switch that has occurred throughout the institutions of this town," the reporter said. "It's just a whole new crop of people who have come in and taken over all the various institutions. From the death of the Kennedys and the Byrds and the Russerts to the sale of The Post, it's just a part of that broader metaphor for this city."
This article appears in the August 7, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.