This article was originally published in The Atlantic.
One of this fall’s major media themes is the potential salvation of journalism by leading Silicon Valley moguls like Jeff Bezos and Pierre M. Omidyar—if they have the ingenuity and patience to reinvent the shattered business model of traditional news-gathering. They certainly have the money to do whatever they choose, as well as their conviction as billionaires that they will deliver news in the digital age with the same success as they (and their colleagues) have built fortunes from products and services at Amazon and eBay.
Bezos’ purchase of the The Washington Post for $250 million, a fraction of its former value, with the intention of investing to restore the institution’s resources and morale, is now a fact. But if the process of change is beginning, it has yet to be made publicly. Bezos had a highly successful visit to his acquisition and gave all the right answers to the newsroom about his intentions of support. But as I understand it, he recently told one of the business executives still running the company that he has been so engrossed in Amazon that he hasn’t yet personally focused on a strategy for the Post.
Meanwhile, there is a fin de siècle feeling about the end of the 80-year Graham dynasty (Katharine Weymouth, a Graham, is the CEO, but that is widely expected to be only an interim leadership role). Don Graham’s send-off last week by over 600 former and present employees in what was once the vast space in the Post building that held the printing presses was moving and sincere, but definitely symbolic of a bygone era. Bob Kaiser (a former managing editor of the newspaper and my close friend), who began working there in the 1960s, brilliantly summarized the feeling to Lloyd Grove of The Daily Beast saying, “There’s nothing more intoxicating than nostalgia.”
When Bezos does fully engage, the upheaval is bound to be profound. A fascinating and thorough new book by Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s Brad Stone, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and The Age of Amazon, is a portrait of a driven genius of limitless ambition. The book shows that Bezos has built the most important commercial enterprise on the Internet with fierce determination to crush competitors, a culture of corporate secrecy almost unique among publicly traded companies, and a chilling toughness with employees at every level, from the fulfillment centers to the executive suites where turnover has been constant. Based on the record, no one should expect Bezos to treat The Washington Post with gentle regard while it is transformed. Will it be a newspaper on your doorstep in the years ahead? Perhaps not. In an interview with NBC, Bezos said, “I think newspapers on actual paper may be a luxury item. . . . It’s sort of like, you know, people still have horses, but it’s not their primary way of commuting to the office.”
Omidyar’s plans, by what little we know about them, seem to be in distinct contrast to those of Bezos, given that he is creating an enterprise from scratch, although the scale of what he is prepared to commit, thought to be around $250 million, is comparable. Whatever eventual shape the enterprise takes, it will be all-digital.
Omidyar, founder and chairman of eBay, is a philanthropist who has given hundreds of millions of dollars to multiple causes, including nonprofit journalism and civil liberties organizations through the Omidyar Network. His vision for news-gathering is not, at least from what has emerged so far, about profitability. By partnering with Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who became an international celebrity exploiting with extraordinary deftness the devastating revelations about the United States’ surveillance activities from documents supplied by Edward Snowden, Omidyar signaled his venture will be as disruptive as investigative reporting can make it. The documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, who has worked with Greenwald on the Snowden material, and Jeremy Scahill, who made his reputation at The Nation and in his bestselling books Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Power Mercenary Army and Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, seem to reflect Omidyar’s goal for disclosure as the core of what he says will be a news site with a broad canvas.
Beyond these high-profile initial hires, details of Omidyar’s plans are as yet unclear. But in an interview with The New York Times‘ columnist David Carr, he made an observation that explains why the attraction of Silicon Valley investors to news could be a development of real consequence for journalism, beyond their much needed cash. “I think that technology could help find a way to actually do important journalism for our democracy,” he said, “that can impact many more people and help serve it to a general interest audience in a way that can be commercially sustainable.”
In the decade or so of precipitous financial decline in the once flourishing newspaper world, technology has been a confounding factor because most owners were inevitably limited in their access to expertise. Unable to devise formulas that would make up for their losses in advertising and readership, the downward slide seemed irreversible. That is what happened at The Washington Post and forced Donald Graham to sell, demolishing a family trust that seemed unbreakable.
Jeff Bezos, Pierre Omidyar—and others from the generation and background that have brought Apple, Google, Facebook, and Twitter to the center of our daily lives—have an intuitive sense of the impact of technology that, applied to the presentation of news, could be exactly what it is needed to expand its reach and, assuming motives as yet to be tested, protect the best of its time-honored values. As Carr wrote, “for all their differences, the news and technology businesses share a kind of utopianism, an idealistic belief that the work of human hands can make life better for other humans.”