Beltway narcissism rampant in wake of WaPo sale to Bezos
The capital's ruling class and its vast army of hangers-on (especially the media branch) is abuzz with the sale of the Washington Post to Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos. For as long as most of them have been adults, the Post has been the arbiter of visibility, able to make or break people in the Washington social whirl, not just respected but feared. After all, it bagged a Republican president.
The Graham family reigned at the pinnacle of the permanent social structure in town. Presidents may come and go, but for four generations, the Grahams have been able stewards, cannily investing some of the paper's bounty during the fat decades in Kaplan, a lucrative private education outfit that has kept the company afloat even as hard copy newspapering plummets toward its grave, done in by the very internet that made its new owner an eleven figure billionaire.
But now the Grahams have bailed out. So suddenly that it caught the New York Times flat-footed. Times reporter Gay Stolberg published a lengthy profile of Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth in last Sunday's Times, just a day before the sale was announced. Mackenzie Weinger of Politico writes:
The New York Times's Sheryl Gay Stolberg on Monday defended her lengthy profile of Katharine Weymouth and said the publisher did not give "any hint that the company was about to be sold" when she was interviewed for the story that appeared in print just one day before the bombshell announcement of the Post's sale to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
Stolberg's profile piece on Weymouth - headlined "The Next Edition," with the subhead "Katharine Weymouth Takes Charge at the Washington Post" - was published online on Aug. 2 and appeared in print on Aug. 4.
Donald Graham took the time to explain the deal in an online interview on the paper's website.
And now in comes some guy from the other Washington, where it almost never gets hot and humid. Anxious speculation abounds. Is he just having fun? Or is this a serious business investment? Henry Blodgett of Business Insider thinks a little of both:
First, I'd guess that Jeff Bezos thinks that owning the Washington Post will be fun, interesting, and cool. And my guess is that, if that is all it ever turns out to be, Jeff Bezos will be fine with that. This is a man who invests in rockets and atomic clocks, after all. He doesn't necessarily make these investments for the money. Or bragging rights. Or strategic synergies.
Second, I'd guess that Jeff Bezos thinks that there are some similarities between the digital news business and his business (ecommerce) that no one in the news business has really capitalized on yet.
His catalogue of similarities is intriguing, but not persuasive. But as he points out, the money involved is pocket change to Bezos.
But what of Bezos's politics? Speculations from both left and right media have it that he is a bit of a libertarian. After all, those high tech folks tend in that direction. But Bezos seems pretty comfortable with Obama, loaning out one of his company's fulfillment centers for one of the current wave of campaign-style speeches. As Ben Shapiro opines at Breitbart:
While conservatives and liberals consider the political leanings of Washington Post buyer and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in an attempt to divine how his politics will affect those of the historic institution, the truth appears to be far simpler: the Post is now Bezos' latest political tool in a crony capitalist effort to work with the Obama administration. How else to explain President Obama puzzling decision last week to roll out his corporate tax plan at an Amazon.com fulfillment center?
Most people who do not live in the Beltway culture don't care much who owns the Post. It has always been a liberal paper, and it is fading fast. But it will be interesting to see how Bezos, an innovator by nature, takes on the task of redoing the business model of a major newspaper. The political leverage enjoyed by the paper means that soon we will have one of the wealthiest men in the world in a position to wield vast influence on the political class. That does seem like a recipe for crony capitalism. Maybe Bezos has gotten himself quite a bargain.
Quietly watching all of this must be the Sulzberger family of the New York Times. Pinch Sulzberger squandred resources on disasters like the Boston Globe, instead of gold mines like Kaplan. Now the Grahams have cashed out in time to save a considerable fortune, and to boot will retain control of Kaplan and other assets. Members of the Sulzberger/Golden family have to be asking themselves if it was wise to let Pinch sell off the high value properties, leaving the company's and the family's fortunes dependent mostly on the newspaper, so far unable to reverse the accelerating financial decline. Maybe it is time to sell out? Carlos Slim has already put money into the operation (and made a pretty penny on it, owing to high interest payments), and he may be even richer than Bezos.