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August 5, 2013 at 3:34 PM

Amazon.com owner Jeff Bezos buys The Washington Post

Jeff Bezos introducing Amazon's Kindle Fire in 2011 (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Jeff Bezos introducing Amazon’s Kindle Fire in 2011
(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

As a child growing up just outside of Washington, D.C., reading the Washington Post was a time-honored daily tradition. As a young journalist, I aspired to work at the venerable newspaper and did for four years. As a consumer of news,  I’m cautiously optimistic about the newspaper’s sale to Jeff Bezos, owner of e-commerce giant, Amazon.

The paper, owned for generations by the Graham-family, continues family-ownership with the Bezos family. For similar reasons, I’m also cheering the New York Times sale of The Boston Globe to the owner of the Boston Red Sox. That sale returned a good, but struggling paper to local ownership. Under ownership of someone who lives and breathes all things Boston, I’m betting the Globe begins a turnaround of decades of circulation and financial decline.

Back to the Washington Post. Bezos is paying $250 million for the paper, a surprisingly low price for one of the world’s most respected institutions. Hopefully, he’s paying sales tax on this purchase. My tongue is only slightly planted in my cheek. Bezos and Amazon have aggressively sought to avoid collecting sales tax on online purchases. New Jersey in June became just the 10th  state where Amazon collects sales tax.

Among the many questions raised by the sale, is whether Bezos, who has zero experience in journalism, has at least an appreciation for its public service value. How much he values the fourth estate will be one of the things that will guide how much he invests in the expensive business of newsgathering. The Washington Post is a heavyweight in journalism. The paper was enshrined in American political history for breaking the Watergate scandal that brought down a president, and for the Pentagon Papers. But more recently, it has led on disclosures about the National Security Administration’s surveillance program and is still one of the best in terms of local and regional reporting. It is in the public’s interest that the Post continue to excel in public journalism. On Monday, Bezos sent a statement to Post employees that sought to allay any such fears.

 “The values of The Post do not need changing. The paper’s duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners. We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes.”

But Brad Stone, author of The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon—that will be released by Little, Brown in October, sets the stage differently.

“Jeff has said Amazon has placed a big bet on disrupting what he calls the old gatekeepers, the institutions forged in an analog age that stand between creators of content and consumers. Now here he has gone and personally acquired what is one of the biggest and most well-known gatekeepers out there.”  Hmmm.

I get that Bezos is buying the paper. Amazon is not connected to the sale in any way. But Washington is a city of political influence and power. To own a paper like the Post is to suddenly possess a breathtakingly huge amount of power. It is the bully pulpit that commands attention day after day.

My advice to Bezos: Build a firewall, a thick one, between the Post and Amazon. The public needs to trust the two companies are separate and never the twain shall meet.

Like many, I’m wondering why the sale price was so cheap.  Gannett Co. Inc. purchased the Dallas-based broadcast company Belo Corp., including KING 5, for $2.2 billion. The Boston Globe’s sale price was a lowly $70 million, but that paper is not only smaller than the Post, but had undergone serious devaluation during and after the recession.

Lastly, what’s a quiet libertarian like Bezos going to do in a big-government town like Washington, D.C?  Bezos, who came off as a civic tightwad in a four-part Times series, Behind the Amazon.com smile, may have difficulty embracing the nation’s capital. We’ll have to see.

The Seattle Times is located just next door to the blocks of Amazon buildings in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood. I’ve seen how the company and its outsized online and physical presence have changed the Emerald City. Change is coming to the Post. Disruptive change, no doubt. But if Bezos can find a way to successfully monetize newsprint, reinvigorate our audience and pull us into the next frontier, the sale will be a win-win in my eyes.

Comments | Topics: Amazon, e-commerce, economy

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