Jeff Bezos Reveals His Thought Process on Buying the Washington Post

An excerpt from his recent book reveals “one gift the internet brings newspapers.”

I was not looking for a newspaper and had no intention of buying a newspaper. I had never thought about the idea. It wasn’t like a childhood dream. My friend Don Graham, whom I’ve known for over twenty years, approached me through an intermediary and wanted to know if I would be interested in buying the Washington Post. I sent back word that I would not because I didn’t really know anything about newspapers.

Don, however, over a series of conversations, convinced me that was unimportant because the Washington Post already had so much internal talent who understood newspapers. What they needed was somebody who had an understanding of the internet, and so that was the first thing. That’s kind of how it got started, and then I did some soul-searching. And my decision-making process was definitely intuitive and not analysis driven. The financial situation of the Washington Post at that time, in 2013, was very upside down. It was a fixed-cost business and had lost a lot of revenue over the previous five or six years, not through any fault of the people working there or of the leadership team. The paper had been managed very, very well. The problem was a secular one, not cyclical. The internet was just eroding all of the traditional advantages that local newspapers enjoyed. It’s a profound problem across local newspapers all around the country and the world. So I had to do some soul-searching, and I asked myself whether this was something I wanted to get involved in. If I was going to do it, I was going to put some heart into it and some work into it, and I decided I would only do that if I really believed it was an important institution. I said to myself, “If this were a financially upside-down salty snack food company, the answer would be no.” I started thinking about the Post as an important institution, the newspaper in the capital city of the most important country in the world. The Washington Post has an incredibly important role to play in this democracy. There’s just no doubt in my mind about that. 

And so, as soon as I had passed through that gate, I only had one more gate I had to go through before telling Don yes. I wanted to be really open with myself, to look in the mirror and think about the company and be sure I was optimistic that it could work. If it were hopeless, that would not be something I would get involved in. I looked at the Post’s situation, and I was super optimistic, but it needed to be transitioned into a national and a global publication. There’s one gift the internet brings newspapers. It destroys almost everything, but it brings one gift, and that is free global distribution. In the old days of paper newspapers, you would need to build printing plants everywhere. Your logistics operations, to have a truly global newspaper or even a really national newspaper, meant super-expensive, heavy-capital-expenditure investments. That’s why so few papers actually became national or global. But today, with the internet, you get that gift of free distribution. So we had to take advantage of that gift, and that was the basic strategy. We had to switch from a business model where we made a lot of money per reader with a relatively small number of readers to a tiny bit of money per reader with a very large number of readers, and that’s the transition we made. I’m pleased to report that the Post is profitable today. The newsroom is growing. Marty Baron, who leads the newsroom, is killing it. I think he’s the best editor in the newspaper business. We have Fred Ryan, the publisher, and Fred Hyatt on the editorial page. They’re killing it. Shailesh Prakash, our head of technology, is a superstar. So it’s working. I’m so proud of that team, and I know for a fact when I’m eighty or, let’s say—I always project myself forward to age eighty, but as I get older, I’m starting to do ninety—so I know that when I’m ninety, it’s going to be one of the things I’m most proud of, that I took on the Washington Post and helped it through a very rough transition. 

If you’re the president of the United States or a governor of a state, for example, you don’t take that job thinking you’re not going to get scrutinized. You’re going to get scrutinized, and it’s healthy. The president should say, “This is right. This is good. I’m glad I’m being scrutinized.” That would be so secure and confident. But it’s really dangerous to demonize the media. It’s dangerous to call the media lowlifes. It’s dangerous to say they’re the enemy of the people. We live in a society where it’s not just the laws of the land that protect us—we do have freedom of the press; it’s in the Constitution—but it’s also the social norms that protect us. It works because we believe those words on that piece of paper, and every time you attack the Constitution, you’re eroding it a little bit around the edges. We are so robust in this country. The media is going to be fine. We’re going to push through this. By the way, Marty Baron will always make a super-important point when he meets with the newsroom: “The administration may be at war with us. We are not at war with the administration. Just do the work. Just do the work.” I’ve heard him say it many times. I say it myself when I meet with journalists at the Washington Post

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Invent and Wander: The Collected Writings of Jeff Bezos. Invent and Wander is co-published by PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, and Harvard Business Review Press. Copyright 2021 Jeffrey P. Bezos. All rights reserved.