With some of the best news gatherers in journalism on staff, it was a surprise that the owners of The Washington Post were able to keep their sale of the paper a secret. But there were plenty of shocked expressions at the company's headquarters on Monday when members of the Graham family announced that Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, had purchased the venerable publication for $250 million.
Some employees said they went into the meeting expecting that the leadership had finally found a new headquarters, or at worst the company was in for another management shakeup. According to multiple sources who were present, many in the audience were hit hard when Donald Graham, the family patriarch, choked up as he delivered the news and thanked employees for their contribution and hard work to the paper his family had owned since 1933.
Some of the people who spoke with The Verge, all of whom asked for anonymity, said there were plenty of "sad faces" following the meeting. "It was like a funeral," said another. "People are scared."
Employees hoping for an owner like the Grahams will likely be disappointed
Some on staff weren't sure about Bezos' history as an employer or his attitude towards the news business. For those employees hoping for an owner like the Grahams, generally beloved by the staff, they will likely be disappointed. Ever since the death of Katharine Graham, who oversaw many of the paper's greatest successes — including its Watergate coverage — the paper has been led by her son, Donald Graham. Within the Post, he was famous for personally welcoming new hires and he could remember the name of every worker.
Under his stewardship, the paper never had a round of layoffs at a time in the newspaper business when employee cutbacks are commonplace. His loyalty to employees may have cost him. During an interview with a Post reporter, Graham said that the paper had suffered seven consecutive years of declining revenue. It hadn't gone unnoticed that the Grahams were cutting back on such things as maintaining the company's cafeteria and bathrooms. Some employees said the building was getting run down.
In contrast, Bezos is famous for using technology to streamline processes and making distribution systems more efficient. Whether he will do that with news distribution remains to be seen, but Bezos has indeed been a controversial figure amongst some of his own employees. Last week, when President Barack Obama spoke at an Amazon warehouse in Tennessee, his appearance sparked criticism of the company's stategy of creating low-wage, part-time jobs. Following that, Amazon workers in Germany went on strike and began demanding that the company classify them as retail workers instead of warehouse workers. The change would mean as much as $12,000 more a year per worker.
Bezos has already signaled that something may have to give at the paper. "There will of course be change at The Post over the coming years," he wrote in a memo to Post staffers, explaining that the internet has changed the competitive landscape of journalism in many ways, and specifically hinting that some news-gathering techniques might be more cost effective.
Nine months ago, the Amazon founder gave German publication Berliner Zeitung a wide-ranging interview which touched on the state of journalism. As one might expect from the man selling Kindle tablets and e-readers, Bezos shared his belief that the printed page is dying, and that printed newspapers in particular would die out in the next twenty years. It might not be much condolence for a Post staffer lamenting the loss of the status quo, but Bezos also told the publication that regardless of what happens to print, he also believed that there would still be a place for journalism. "Journalism will not disappear."
Sean Hollister contributed to this report.