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‘We knew we could survive, but we always felt that our ownership should do more than help the paper survive,” Donald Graham, chairman and CEO of the Washington Post Company said after announcing the transfer of the paper’s ownership to Amazon founder, Jeffrey Bezos. After 80 years the Grahams are handing over the reins.
The sale, for a mere $250 million, marks a milestone for the industry – as a tradition of newspaper-family owners ends, a first tech billionaire owner takes up the mantle. Are we now entering what one writer called the “Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper-industry’s collapse.” At the weekend the Boston Globe went the same way.
Small change for Bezos, 19th on Forbes’ billionaires list, with a personal fortune from which the cheque is being written of more than $25 billion. The price of the Post was a bargain anyway, not least in terms of property assets, though the newspaper division reported an operating loss of $49.3 million for the six months ending in June. It is the seventh largest daily in the US, although its place in the nation’s capital has given it a unique political clout.
Has he bought the Post as a business? An exercise of political power? Or of philanthropy? Possibly all three. What will happen to the Post’s new online paywall which Bezos is said to disapprove of? And he has run Amazon for many years on a slim- to no-profits basis – will that long-termism and his deep pockets mean a badly needed new infusion of investment?
As for influence, although he promises to leave day-to-day operations to others, and has not taken strong political positions publicly to date, few imagine he will not want at least to instill in the Post some of what his friends describe as his “libertarian” instincts.
“I asked (Bezos) why he wanted to do it,” Graham says, “and his reasons are the best ones: he believes in what newspapers do and what the Post does and that it’s important to the country.” If that really is the case, this is good news for this beleaguered industry.