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Politics

Behind the Jeff Bezos Curtain at The Washington Post

New Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos.(EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)

photo of Matthew Cooper
November 5, 2013

Jeff Bezos has yet to truly make a mark on his latest acquisition, The Washington Post. In some ways, that shouldn't be a surprise: The deal closed only a month ago. But that doesn't mean that there hasn't been some potential for a shake-up. One high-profile editor, Fred Hiatt, National Journal has learned, offered his resignation to the billionaire owner—and Bezos has shown interest in taking down the paper's online paywall when large-scale news events happen.

Hiatt, the editorial page editor of The Post, is a bete noir for many liberals because of, among other things, the paper's support of the Iraq War. His offer to step down would have allowed Bezos to put his own person in one of the newspaper's most influential positions. But Bezos declined Hiatt's offer and is also keeping the rest of senior management, although they clearly serve at the owner's pleasure. "Jeff believes if you have a management team that is struggling in an industry that's doing well you'd replace it but not if you have a management team that's doing the best one could expect during one of the biggest information convulsions of all time," says one insider.

As for The Post's recently erected paywall, on Sept. 16, the day of the Navy Yard shooting that transfixed Washington—and the nation—Bezos asked if The Post had suspended its fee, insiders told National Journal. The paper had in fact already dropped the paywall both as a public service and with the expectation that hundreds of thousands of readers work be drawn to the site with the most resources to cover the story.

 

So far, however, Bezos has tread cautiously. He has only been to D.C. once since the purchase, although a second visit is planned soon. Even more intriguing, there's no landing party of Bezos acolytes scurrying about nor is there a massive, McKinsey-style evaluation of the enterprise beyond the due diligence that Allen & Co. handled with the initial $250 million sale—one that included The Post and a handful of community newspapers. Insiders say Bezos will go through The Post carefully in something of a listening tour, beginning with the business side.

But top Washington Post management has made a pilgrimage to his home in Seattle, National Journal has learned. Earlier this fall, Editor Martin Baron, Publisher Katharine Weymouth, and the president of the company, Steve Hills, visited Bezos at the billionaire's home on Lake Washington—a residence so big tax records show it cost $28 million a few years back. Bezos himself made pancakes for the group and brought no staff as they conducted a long session reviewing the paper's business and editorial content.

What can be derived from these first modest steps? They add flesh to Bezos's public statements about The Post and the 49-year-old's style as one of the great entrepreneurs in American history. And they are emblematic of his methodical approach. When it comes to properties like The Post that Bezos buys himself, "he's not passive with these assets," says Brad Stone, author of the new The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon—a book which Bezos's wife, Mackenzie, gave a withering review on, of all places, Amazon.com. "He watches these very closely from afar and audits them selectively."

Part of watching things closely is Bezos's famed "question mark" emails in which he'll take something he's curious about—be it a complaint from a customer or something else he spots—and forward it to the relevant manager with a single question mark. Followed up by meetings and the occasional chewing out, it can be an excruciating experience for Amazon employees. So far no one National Journal has spoken with had gotten one but many were waiting nervously for them. Post leaders know to keep the new boss's "shadow"—a legendary position at Amazon, kind of like a chief of staff, now held by a former Kindle executive Jay Marine—in the loop on any contacts with Jeff.

Bezos has also made it clear about things he does like. During his trip to D.C. in December he let it be known that he liked two viral stories, one called "9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask" and one on the suicide of the beloved, tattooed-and-gauged staffer at a local concert venue, the 9:30 Club. In his talks, he brought up hyper-local issues like scout troops. All over The Post, staffers wonder if the publication will end up preloaded on the Kindle as well as any other ties to Amazon where Bezos is CEO and chairman of the board. "With any luck every time you buy a box of detergent from Amazon, you'll get The Post," jokes one longtime writer for the paper.

Bezos can afford to be patient; he bought The Post with his own money and needn't answer to shareholders. The $250 million purchase price of the newspaper is about 1 percent of his $25 billion net worth. (Facebook's Chris Hughes has a similar, but much smaller, private investment in The New Republic.) So far those who have met with Bezos say he's in it for the long haul.

That includes Bob Woodward, who met with Bezos last month. The famed investigative reporter and the billionaire have known each other for years and in their chat Woodward brought up 14 points with Bezos. (He wouldn't get into the details, but told National Journal he brought up ways to "strategically figure out the reporting topics and make sure they're examined with in-depth reporting" and focusing the paper on areas that really count and trying to find a way "to make a newspaper attractive to children.") Bezos took notes during the meeting. Woodward left further convinced that Bezos not only shared the Graham family's commitment to news but that he was going to bring an urgency for ideas and the patience to let them bloom. "I think he's the real thing," Woodward says. Everyone else in media is hoping he's right.

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