(Left) Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Donald Graham, The Washington Post chief executive, at a conference in Sun Valley, Idaho. (Reuters)
Seattle, Aug. 6: The Washington of Jeffrey P. Bezos has been the one of disruptive technology, fleece jackets and software engineers. He has shown little interest in the Washington of politics, power suits and Woodward and Bernstein.
Yet now, from his tech frontier in Seattle, Bezos has bridged those far-flung worlds by buying The Washington Post.
The purchase price of $250 million is a pittance for a man who ranked 19th on Forbes magazine’s list of billionaires, with an estimated fortune of more than $25 billion.
But the deal was still an astonishing move for a magnate who has kept a low profile in politics and has said almost nothing about his interest in newspapers, except that he reads them. Nonetheless, Bezos will now have a microphone as powerful as anyone in Washington and outside the West Wing.
Keeping with a lot of his tech industry peers, he brings with him a sort of libertarian bent, having supported gay marriage in the state of Washington and fought higher income taxes on wealthy people.
“Of the business-people I know, he and Bill Gates are the two most intellectually curious people I know,” said Rob Glaser, the founder of another Seattle technology company, RealNetworks, who has known Bezos since the 1990s.
“It doesn’t surprise me that Jeff would find something with the intellectual depth of The Post an intriguing, compelling thing to be involved with.”
Bezos, 49, said in a statement yesterday that he would leave the day-to-day operations at The Washington Post to others. But his history — rising quickly as a Wall Street whiz, then starting Amazon.com out of a garage and building it into a retailing giant — is chock-full of cold calculations to improve his company’s fortunes.
Many of his decisions have panned out, as Amazon has muscled its way into nearly every corner of retailing, leaving many competitors chafed its his wake.
The purchase of The Washington Post fits into one of the more eclectic — some might say, eccentric — patterns of investing and charitable giving of today’s billionaires. On top of the usual ream of stakes in technology start-ups like Uber and Twitter, Bezos has indulged his passion for space by financing the recovery from the seabed of an Apollo rocket that carried the first men to the moon.
He is paying for creation of a clock buried in a mountain in west Texas that will tick once a year for the next 10,000 years.
And now, Bezos — a man known for being an unsentimental businessman — has invested squarely in a sentimental business steeped in tradition. Of course, The Washington Post deal could feed his demonstrated appetite for reinventing venerable industries, from retailing to book publishing.
Amazon’s Kindle business has turned Bezos from a merchant into a media mogul, as celebrated in some circles as another digital disrupter, Steven P. Jobs, Apple’s former chief executive.
Bezos and Donald E. Graham, The Washington Post’s chief executive, have longstanding connections that may have helped the discussions. As an article on The Post’s website noted yesterday, Graham gave the Amazon chief advice on how to promote newspapers on the Kindle device. And Amazon is an investor in LivingSocial, an e-commerce venture led by Tim O’Shaughnessy, Graham’s son-in-law.
He has provided few clues about what changes might be in store. In an interview last year, though, he stated that he did not think people reading the Web would pay for a newspaper subscription because they were too trained to get it free. The Washington Post started an online subscription plan this year.
He said in the same interview that there would be no printed newspapers in 20 years. The Washington Post had more than 457,000 subscribers to its daily edition in the first quarter of this year.
This year, Bezos was one of a group that put $5 million into the Business Insider, a news site founded by Henry Blodget. Blodget rose to fame as a Wall Street analyst in the late 1990s.
Critics of Amazon were aghast at the news of The Washington Post purchase, saying it would further increase the power of a company and a tycoon they think already has too much of it.
Although Bezos and not Amazon bought The Post, rivals and critics were already concerned that the newspaper’s work would be used to help Amazon. “It’s an old boring story — rich man buys a newspaper — but in this instance it’s one of the richest men ever buying one of the most important newspapers ever, which is the one our government leaders read first thing every morning,” said Dennis Johnson, the co-founder of Melville House.