Behind the Jeff Bezos Curtain at The Washington Post

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos addresses a press conference to introduce new Amazon and Kindle products in New York, September 28, 2011.
National Journal
Matthew Cooper
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Matthew Cooper
Nov. 5, 2013, 7:02 a.m.

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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