Washington Post staffers are speculating about what Jeff Bezos' leaving Amazon means for them
- Jeff Bezos is more interested in expanding the Post’s tech capabilities than acquisitions, sources said.
- Post executives had discussed buying the Miami Herald, Kotaku, and Decision Desk HQ, but passed.
- Bezos and publisher Fred Ryan are now looking for a successor for editor Marty Baron.
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Jeff Bezos has been a model newspaper owner since he purchased The Washington Post in 2013, growing the paper’s technology capabilities and avoiding meddling in editorial matters.
But now that Bezos is stepping down as CEO of Amazon to become the company’s executive chair, Post workers are speculating about how engaged their billionaire owner will become as he chooses a successor for executive editor Marty Baron.
Acquisitions are one area of speculation. The Post has not made one under Bezos, but the possibility has been kicked around repeatedly. According to two people familiar with the matter, Post executives discussed buying the Miami Herald when that paper’s owner, McClatchy, struggled through bankruptcy last year.
Baron, who formerly led the Herald, was among those who were interested in exploring a deal, according to one of the people familiar (“Marty never suggested buying the Miami Herald,” a Post spokesperson said). Bezos suggested that it would make more sense for the Post to simply build out a team in Miami, the source familiar said. (The paper did neither).
The previously unreported episode reflects how Bezos views the Post’s role in saving journalism — through technology, not acquisition.
Since Bezos bought the paper, the Post has heavily invested in tech. Its Arc platform, for instance, provides the technical infrastructure to more than 1,000 sites globally and has become an increasingly important part of the Post’s business. Arc brings in tens of millions in revenue a year and is break even, according to a source familiar with the matter.
The Post also licenses its in-house adtech tool Zeus to companies such as McClatchy, the Seattle Times, and Tribune Publishing. One Post source said that Zeus was almost break even, too.
For Bezos, Arc and Zeus are for The Washington Post what Amazon Web Services (AWS) is for Amazon — lucrative, cloud-based offerings through which outside companies can innovate, according to people familiar with his thinking.
One additional question for Bezos will be whether to break off Arc or Zeus into separate companies. That could potentially help market the products to a broader array of companies, though part of the allure of the services is that they help publishers become part of a collective that includes the Post itself.
Meanwhile, the IT expansion has fueled internal speculation that CIO Shailesh Prakash might succeed publisher Fred Ryan, 65, who is nearing retirement age. (Baron is 66.)
“Fred expects to remain publisher for the long-term and has assured Jeff that he has no intention of retiring any time soon,” the Post spokesperson said.
The Post has discussed but ultimately passed on other acquisitions
After Bezos name-checked the Post as a passion that will receive “time and energy” in his announcement stepping down as CEO of Amazon, texts and slacks began flying between “Posties” in the newsroom. Some said they believed Bezos’ overall commitment to the Post was about burnishing his legacy. They are largely unsure what his job change will mean for them, if anything.
Journalistically, Bezos is said to be greatly interested in area-specific coverage. During his tenure, for instance, the Post has expanded its coverage of technology and poached reporters from outlets like The Wall Street Journal.
The paper has eyed other targeted acquisitions in the past, including a hard look at video game site Kotaku in 2019. The Post ultimately passed, according to two people familiar with the matter. (Kotaku was a part of Univision’s sale of Gizmodo Media Group to Great Hill Partners.) The Post later that year launched its own video game and esports section, Launcher, bankrolled by GEICO.
Executives at the company also considered buying Decision Desk HQ, the elections reporting service, but did not pursue a deal, one source said.
A spokesperson said there were never active discussions with Kotaku, Decision Desk, or the Herald.
The search is on for the Post’s next top editor
Though it was only a small (relatively speaking) purchase of $250 million for the world’s richest man, the Post acquisition has been an incredibly successful one. The paper notched its fifth straight year of profitability in 2020 and plans to add 150 positions in 2021. It’s also coming off of a journalistic glory period after it broke scoop after scoop on the tumultuous Trump administration.
“I think the Post has given Bezos some of the best public relations he’s had in years,” said one Post staffer.
Bezos has been a largely hands-off owner, but one way he will be involved is in the selection of a successor for Baron, who will leave the company at the end of the month. Possible candidates thrown around include former managing editor Kevin Merida and current national editor Steven Ginsberg. Staffers are also bracing for the possibility of a surprise external hire.
A titan of journalism made more famous after he was played by Liev Schreiber in the movie “Spotlight,” Baron holds a tight grip on the Post newsroom that will be tough for a new editor to match.
Post sources said in pre-pandemic times Ryan was known to meet Baron in Baron’s office, with the editor facing the newsroom and keeping an eye on things. Baron also kept Bezos at arm’s length on news matters — something that may be more difficult for the forthcoming successor.
“Marty was very respectful of Jeff but very uninterested in talking editorial strategy,” said one Post insider.
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