Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos stood before journalists from one of the country's most storied newspapers and told them their publication can't live in the past.
Bezos met late this afternoon with the staff of The Washington Post — the paper he agreed to buy for $250 million — where he laid out some of his plans for the future, according to employees in attendance. The billionaire talked less about print and more about the importance of computer tablets. He spoke about learning from upstart competitors, such as The Huffington Post and Business Insider — a blog in which Bezos has made a $5 million investment. He suggested that Post stories need to be more exciting, and he stressed the importance of making money.
"They really liked him. They're eager for him to figure this out." During another era, his message might have alienated the Post's journalists. Years ago, many reporters found it unsavory for a news department to be concerned with profits. The prevailing feeling was that reporting the news was sacred and the business interests should be subservient to editorial. But those days are long gone; newspapers across the country are dying. The Washington Post Company was on track to report declining revenues for the seventh consecutive year. In this environment, print journalists are looking for a savior, some great business mind to come up with a new business model that resuscitates the industry.
Bezos wasn't speaking to a group of pushovers. In the front row were Ben Bradlee and Bob Woodward, the men who led the Post's coverage of the Watergate scandal and helped bring down a sitting US president, Richard Nixon. Nonetheless, when Bezos wrapped up his Q&A, he received a spirited ovation. "They really liked him," said one Post staffer. "They're eager for him to figure this out."
Bezos won over the crowd with frank talk and jokes, by paying homage to the Post's history as a home for top-notch investigative journalism, and by pledging to make the reader the paper's first priority. Earlier in the day, the Post published a story about an earlier meeting Bezos attended with several of the paper's reporters. "All businesses need to be young forever," Bezos said. "If your customer base ages with you, you’re Woolworth’s. The number one rule has to be: don’t be boring." As for the fears that Bezos might try to boost profits through layoffs and headcount reductions, he said the paper risked becoming irrelevant if it continued to reduce staff.
"The number one rule has to be: don’t be boring." According to the Post, Bezos told the staff that the paper's success depends on drawing readers into a "daily ritual habit” of reading numerous stories across different subjects.
As for Bezos' impressions of the Post, it’s unclear, but he may have been unimpressed with its technology. During his Q&A, his microphone kept screeching and it became a major distraction, according to multiple sources. "It was embarrassing," said one employee. It's reflective, however, of some of the Post's technology, which some there say is badly in need of an upgrade. Employees told The Verge that navigating the paper's site is still too difficult, and publishing stories is still too clunky a process. For a tech-savvy new owner, these are the kinds of fixable problems that could be low-hanging fruit.
Update: The Washington City Paper has obtained audio clips of Bezos' Q&A session with employees at the Post, and they provide a rare insight into the personality of the notoriously press-shy tech magnate. Bezos' first exchange with a veteran Post employee is especially engrossing.