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JOURNALISM IN THE AMERICAS Blog

What will the future hold for The Washington Post and the Boston Globe in billionaire hands?



Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of e-commerce company Amazon.com, is not the first billionaire to enter the newspaper business following his $250 million purchase of The Washington Post on Monday, August 5.

In fact, he wasn’t even the first one this month – sports mogul John W. Henry beat him to that distinction with his purchase of the Boston Globe for $70 million announced on Saturday, August 3.

Bezos and Henry now join the ranks of billionaires-turned-newspaper owners such as Warren Buffett, owner of 88 regional newspapers throughout the country, and The Wall Street Journal owner Rupert Murdoch.  

Building facade at The Washington Post. Photo via Wikimedia

Bezos’s purchase of The Washington Post ends the four-generation family ownership of the newspaper whose walls are lined with Pulitzer Prizes and known for breaking landmark stories such as the 1974 Watergate scandal. 

In an open letter to the newsroom, Bezos said he will not be involved in the day-to-day operation but added that “there will be, of course, change coming to The Post over coming years.” He will instead continue his focus on Amazon.com, the one-stop internet shop for purchasing items ranging from groceries to electronic books via the Kindle mobile device.

During a tour of the Boston Globe newsroom, Henry echoed a similar strategy by saying he would stay out of editorial decisions. In one quip with the daily’s sports section editor, Henry said he expected no change in the Globe’s coverage of his other prized Boston possession, the Red Sox baseball team.

Nonetheless, media experts are asking whether these news outlets can remain independent from the business interests of their owners. And if so, what will the future hold for these journalistically venerable but financially vulnerable institutions?

Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review writes that these transactions are ushering the “Billionaire Savior” era of the newspaper-collapse cycle, a phase that could be either hurtful or beneficial. The price tag amounts to 1% percent of Bezos’s $25 billion estimate personal value.  Henry’s estimated wealth in 2006 was $2.5 billion but has reported to have fallen since then.

Bezos is active in Washington political circles and Chittum wondered how his new platform could factor into promoting his editorial views in the nation’s capital. Or the purchase could be seen as an act of public service, as The Guardian's media writer Roy Greenslade suggested in his August 6 post.

"If we put all commercial considerations to one side, then it's plausible to see Bezos's purchase as an act of philanthropy," Greenslade writes.

Speaking with the BBC, Richard Brandt, author of the book “One Click: Jeff Bezos and The Rise of Amazon.com,” states that Bezos’s highly secretive and commanding style could undermine the mission of The Washington Post.

Other observers wrote that it is too early to tell what changes Bezos will implement at The Washington Post, and that his involvement could be positive for the paper. They point to the fact that Bezos, unlike other media moguls like Murdoch or Buffett, is first of the digital-age billionaires to buy up a traditional media outlet.

Alan D. Mutter, a news entrepreneur and professor at the University of California’s Graduate School of Journalism, writes in his blog that Bezos “has the opportunity to show publishers how to do digital” and reverse the paper’s financial demise.

Despite the media clout a name like The Washington Post has among journalists and readers, its recent numbers paint a dreary picture. According to Mutter, The Post’s revenues declined from $957.1 million in 2005 to $581.7 million in 2012 – a 39% drop. Daily circulation dropped from 706,135 in 2005 to 471,800 in 2012 – a 41% drop.

Brier Dudley, a columnist on technology affairs for The Seattle Times, seemed initially positive about Bezo’s purchase, stating that “newspapers desperately need people with the vision, creativity and business skills of Bezos to save their industry and preserve their role in democracy.”

 



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