News Lab Jeff Bezos Takes Washington Post into Digital Future
A spirit of enthusiasm has infused the office of the once troubled Washington Post following its purchase in August by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. He is turning the newspaper into a laboratory for the digital future. Can he save a sick industry?
Jeff Bezos has come to offer his condolences to the Washington Post. The CEO of Amazon boarded a plane in Seattle late in the evening to arrive on time for the funeral in Washington on this morning.
It is Oct. 29, a grey fall day, and the established Washington elites are gathered in front of the National Cathedral: senior politicians, publishers and top journalists past and present. They have come to bury Ben Bradlee, a legend in the journalism world. He was editor-in-chief when the Post uncovered the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s, bringing down then President Richard Nixon and securing a permanent spot for the paper in the American history books.
The glorious past is being celebrated once again on this day. The service is a festival of remembrance, commemorating the best days of the Post and its values as an independent, incorruptible and tenacious newspaper.
Bezos, wearing an atypical tie, is standing at the entrance to the church, holding a smartphone to his ear. At the memorial ceremony, he looks a little lost as he moves through the crowd. This is not his world, but the Post is now his newspaper. He bought the paper in August 2013, probably saving it from demise in the process. With $250 million (220 million) of his personal fortune, the Amazon founder acquired the newspaper from its publishers, the Graham family, which was at a loss over how to lead the once proud newspaper into the digital future.
The news of the deal hit the newspaper world like a thunderbolt, with the established narrative being that the New Economy had conquered Old Media. The optimists saw Bezos as the digital savior of the ailing newspaper profession, while for pessimists the acquisition signified the demise of journalism once and for all. Even at the Post, no one was quite sure whether Bezos embodied the future or simply the end of the paper's illustrious past.
In front of the church, reporters with PostTV, the paper's video service, held up a camera in front of Bezos. Unfortunately, he said, he had never met Bradlee. But, he added, "What better future could you hope for than to have the DNA of Ben Bradlee embedded in your institution?"
Many in the editorial offices saw the video and were enthusiastic about it. Bezos's bow to Bradlee had given the Post journalists back a little peace of mind. "We are back in the game, we now have the resources to do big things again", says Cory Haik, senior editor for digital news at the Post.
Learning to Think Big
Until a little over a year ago, the Post was a newspaper in a "we're still here" twilight state. Circulation was declining, as were sales, more than 400 jobs had been cut since 2003 and it was unclear whether the paper stood a chance of surviving. The editorial staff clung to the fact that the Post was still a good newspaper and was still winning Pulitzer prizes -- in short, that it was still the Washington Post. But that "we're still here" attitude was also tinged with an odor of decline.
Since August 2013, a new calendar has begun for the 137-year-old newspaper: B.B. -- before Bezos, and A.B. -- after Bezos. The Amazon CEO has injected new energy into the editorial staff. Instead of simply bringing in cash to allow the staff to continue the status quo, he plunged the Post into a period of cultural change, determined that the paper would reinvent itself and escape the confines of the printed page.
Bezos wants the paper's editors and journalists to learn to think big. What does a digital newspaper have to look like in 10 or 20 years to keep millions of readers interested? He has given them time -- and a lot of money - to come up with an answer.
Not surprisingly, there is a hint of Amazon in the air at the Post these days. Any experiment that promises to bring in millions of new readers is encouraged and paid for. Bezos reasons that once the Post has penetrated into the lives of millions of Americans, profits will somehow materialize on their own. He applied the same rationale to turn Amazon into the world's largest Internet retailer, revolutionizing consumption and, with the Kindle, the way we read books.
No Magic Pill To Solve Industry's Woes
But what exactly is Bezos up to at the Washington Post? Is he trying to turn the old world of newspaper publishers upside-down and provide them with an answer to the question on everyone's mind: How can journalism survive on the Web? Or is the Post ultimately nothing but an exciting hobby for someone who doesn't know what to do with all his money?
Bezos's motives remain a mystery to those at the Post. "But it's ridiculous to believe that Jeff Bezos came here with a magic pill to solve all the media industry's problems within a year -- that's a preposterous notion. If he knew already what worked, we would not need any experiments," says Executive Editor Marty Baron.
Baron, with his mop of unruly grey hair and small, round eyes, wears the sleeves of his purple shirt rolled up. The glass wall of his office on the fifth floor gives him a view of the giant newsroom, where hundreds of journalists work. It's the same office that was used by Bradlee and his predecessors. Anyone who has seen the 1976 film "All the President's Men," starring Robert Redford, knows what it looks like inside the Washington Post.
When Baron arrived at the Post in early 2013, the mood in the editorial offices was gloomy. "The question was: How could we fulfill our journalistic mission with fewer and fewer people and a declining budget," he says.
Customers or Readers?
Shortly after the sale to Bezos, Baron and a small entourage flew to Seattle, with a wish list in their pockets. The meeting took place in Bezos's home. But instead of simply writing a check, the Amazon CEO had some questions. He wanted Baron to explain the purpose of various projects to him. "The discussions we had with him were mostly about: How do we draw large numbers of customers?" says Baron. Baron often uses the word "customers" instead of "readers" these days, and it isn't quite clear whether this is intentional or simply the result of his biweekly telephone conversations with Bezos. Before the trip to Seattle, the Post team had worked up some numbers on the costs of various proposals, and how much revenue each program could potentially generate. "We put down numbers because we did not want to have nothing, but we told Bezos right from the beginning that these forecasts were based on nothing but guesswork on our part," says Baron. Apparently Bezos didn't care.
One of the first ideas to get implemented was the "Morning Mix" on the website, a collection of the most important stories from social networks and online media like BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post, which a Post team edits and rewrites daily. As banal as it seems, the new feature is a departure from a long-held doctrine: The website is the sovereign territory of Post journalists, and anything that hasn't been reported by staff doesn't make it onto the site. Since May, anyone from ordinary people to politicians and academics can publish highly opinionated articles in a category called "PostEverything." Both ideas were controversial," says Fredrick Kunkle, a 14-year veteran editor at the Post. "But we understood that we have to open up to gain more readers online."
The spirit of optimism under Bezos has even convinced the skeptics. After years of almost weekly farewell parties in the newsroom, the paper is now hiring larger numbers of journalists once again. About 100 new staffers were added last year, mostly experienced bloggers and multimedia journalists, but also classic journalists like Pulitzer Prize winner Amy Ellis Nut. Popular political blogs on the website, like "Wonkblog" and "The Fix," have been expanded. "The optimism is infectious," says Kunkle.
The editorial department, accustomed to thinking in smaller and smaller terms, has been overcome by a feeling that the sky is the limit. The website's user numbers are growing, with 42 million users in September, a 47-percent increase over last year. Potential numbers on the order of 100 million or more are being talked about in the newsroom. They are fictitious numbers with no basis in reality, and yet they say a lot about the new thrill of the chase among "Posties," the insider term for journalists at the Post. "Bezos has unchained our ambitions, the feeling is that nothing can stop the Post now," says Kunkle.
A look back at 2003 helps to explain what this means. The Post, the largest newspaper in the US capital, launched its first website on June 19, 1996. Steve Coll, the head of the newsroom at the time, sensed that the Internet would give the Post the chance to pull away from its fixation on Washington. An "aggressive Internet strategy" could help the Post become the nation's top newspaper, a national and even global publication. On May 20, 2004, Coll, supported by 40 department heads and managers at the Post, presented his concept to publisher Don Graham. It was called "Beyond Washington."
How the Post Almost Lost It
The meeting at a luxury hotel on Chesapeake Bay ended in a traumatic situation for the Post that can still be felt today. Graham rejected the idea, which might have cost him $15 million. Graham, 58 at the time, was not opposed to the Internet and had invested a lot of money in the website. But he wanted the Post to hold onto its leading position in the capital, a monopoly that had been an important moneymaker for the Graham publishing dynasty for decades. He wanted the Post to write about Washington, even online, but not about the rest of the world.
The editorial department was speechless. "Don machine-gunned the room," journalist Dave Kindred quotes a colleague in his book "Morning Miracle" on the Post 's struggle to survive. The Internet was the medium of possibilities -- and from then on the Post editors felt as if they were incarcerated.
After that, the publisher's official slogan, that the Post was a paper "for and about Washington," became the perfect cover for a new cost-cutting program. National offices were closed and correspondents were recalled. The Watergate triumphalism gave way to what the New Republic called a "Post apocalypse." "The feeling was: We had surrendered," says Kunkle.
At some point during that period, larger-than-life photos of the Post's heroes that had been hanging in the lobby on 15th Street for 30 years were removed, photos of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who had exposed the Watergate scandal, Ben Bradlee and publisher Katharine Graham. In a stroke of irony, the photos were replaced with a flat-screen TV.
A Second Chance
This helps to explain why Bezos's liberating effect on the Post is both monetary and psychological. "The web gives us a second chance to be a truly national and international paper and even more: the preferred destination of American readers," says Executive Editor Baron. And this time Bezos, an Internet titan, is giving them the chance to take advantage of that opportunity.
For the last several months, the Post has been running its "Partner Program," an ambitious attempt to gain millions of new readers outside Washington in one fell swoop. Under the program, subscribers to hundreds of US regional newspapers, from the Honolulu Star Advertiser to the Dallas Morning News, can gain full access to the Post's website and all of its apps -- for free.
But don't steps like that undermine the paper's own pay wall on the Internet? Not a problem. All that counts now is size, size and size. Not even the partner newspapers are paying the Post anything for the program. And more partners are expected to follow. For instance, millions of subscribers to the Netflix online video service and the LinkedIn career network could eventually receive a free digital subscription to the Post. "We want to widen the funnel and give as many people access to the Washington Post as possible, so that more and more people come down that funnel of engagement," says General Manager Steve Hills.
But how and when is this frenzied attempt to expand supposed to pay off? The question alone seems to contradict the new zeitgeist at the Post. The word profit has already been changed to "financial responsibility," which essentially means that even under Bezos, the Post cannot simply throw money out the window. "It's a big bet," says Hills, who reasons that once people have come to value the Post, they will eventually be willing to pay for it.
"Jeff wants us to produce things that customers love. Not things, where we have pre-calculated that for every dollar we put in, we get two back," says Shailesh Prakash, chief information officer for the Post for more than three years. The native Indian has a roundish face and a warm smile. The air-conditioning keeps his brightly lit office at a chilly 15 degrees Celsius (60 degrees Fahrenheit), and there isn't a single piece of paper on his desk.
In the late 1990s, Prakash worked for Sun Microsystems, one of the hippest places in Silicon Valley at the time, and later at Microsoft. Don Graham brought him to the Post. "Don was looking for somebody to use technology to drive and disrupt the industry," says Prakash. Under pressure from shrinking profits, Graham had recognized that the Post needed a change in its digital culture, but it was too late, because the funds were no longer there. "In an environment where you need to reduce cost, you can't take a lot of risks," says Prakash.
When Bezos turned up at the Post, says Prakash, an engineer by training, it was as if a "demigod" had appeared. The Amazon CEO doesn't intervene journalistically, and he isn't interested in how the business is managed, either. But he is excited about every technical project. During his biweekly teleconferences with senior staff at the Post, the man whose main job is to run Amazon, a $75-billion company, wants to discuss "why our site is not as fast as Google or why some of our apps are not as beautiful as the most beautiful games app," says Prakash. In recent months, Bezos has invested a lot of his energy in the new Washington Post app. "He is our most active beta tester," says Prakash -- not surprisingly, since the app will be installed automatically on millions of Amazon's Kindle tablets in the future. Publicly traded giant Amazon is expected to provide the Post, Bezos's personal toy, with millions of new readers, along with an exclusive product for its Kindle users. Kindle customers will receive six months of the digital version of the Post for free, and another six months will cost them only $1. Versions for the iPad and Android devices, at about $4 a month, are expected to be released this year.
A Laboratory for the Newspaper World
Under his leadership, Bezos wants the Post to become a Silicon Valley laboratory for the newspaper world. Prakash has moved 19 IT specialists and developers from their individual offices into the newsroom, so that they can develop new ideas with journalists and editors --from interactive graphics to fast data analyses. The goal is to embed up to 100 developers, and Prakash intends to create 25 new jobs to complete the task. He is currently receiving large numbers of applications. "A lot of people want to be part of this story," he says, "because they firmly believe that with Jeff on board we have front-row seats to a turnaround."
A few months ago, Prakash launched a think tank in New York that is developing blueprints for a digital newspaper to be introduced in five or six years. Other labs will likely be added in Seattle, Austin and other technology centers. "When you want to become a technology hub that rivals Silicon Valley, you can't force everyone to come to Washington, DC," says Prakash.
Prakash and his engineers want to provide the journalists "with data on how their stories are performing." Although the pressure to make money with every new idea has diminished since Bezos's arrival, the power of numbers is stronger than ever. Everything possible is now being measured and calculated. Which articles on the website are read the most or liked on Facebook? Which terms are people searching for on Google at the moment? Which articles on the website should become bigger or smaller, based on this search data? A dedicated editorial team devotes its efforts to what is happening in social networks. Journalists will soon be able to use software that will automatically inform them, during the writing process, how many people are currently discussing a politician on Instagram or Tumblr, which will provide them with tips on how to attract more attention with their articles online.
In blind tests, readers are now presented with articles from the competition, to determine which stories are more popular among men reading the New York Times, for example, than the Post, or vice-versa, and which articles are especially appealing to young readers on sites like BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post.
"In the past, we would make our own comparisons as journalists, but we never measured whether consumers felt the same way," says Baron. "Bezos makes sure that we are not just doing things because this is what we are interested in. The question is rather: What are other people interested in, what is the world interested in."
'We Are Not Going To Be BuzzFeed'
Baron is a veteran journalist, not someone who could be accused of confusing journalism with the hunt for clicks and likes. But how far can a newspaper like the Post go in the race for readers without betraying itself? Does a newspaper that has judged its relevance more by what is in the public interest and less by what the masses want risk sacrificing its virtues in the quest for greater circulation and growth?
A former editor says that the staff at the Post is currently so enthused about growth that the paper risks forgetting to define its readership. What should distinguish the Post from other newspapers with global relevance, like the New York Times and the Guardian? Or does the Post intend to deliver everything to everyone in the future, just like Amazon?
"We are not going to be BuzzFeed, but we can look at BuzzFeed and say: They are doing that smartly, and then apply it to our mission. We do not have to do frivolous stuff," says Baron, pointing to one of the Post's last major Exposés. The paper recently uncovered security breaches at the White House and, in doing so, contributed to the firing of President Barack Obama's chief of security. It was a classic Post story: from Washington, but for a global readership. "We continue to do really important stories and serious subjects, but we have to do it in a way that works on the web," he says.
Despite all the euphoria at the Post, "there is a lot of concern about how we as reporters and employees will be treated in this new Post" says editor Fredrick Kunkle. He's a representative of the journalists' union, and he has already learned that Amazon's CEO is no fan of unions. In September, when the Post trimmed company pensions, 40 editors protested outside the building against the new owner's plans. The step was not absolutely economically necessary, because Graham left Bezos with a generous $300 million pension fund. It was probably more of a signal, as if Bezos were saying: This is my world now.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan