by Jean-Louis Gassée
After predicting the death of newspapers, that was last year, Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder, now buys himself the The Washington Post. Necrophilia or the beginning of another spectacular transformation of an old genre?
A successful business man reaches the dangerous age of 50, looks at his fortune and makes a decision: He's going to plough a few of his millions into a restaurant. In the past 25 years, he's been to many of the best dining places around the world. Power lunches, closing dinners, gastronomy road trips with the family, he's done it all.
He knows restaurants.
But he keeps failing. He fires the chef, changes suppliers, hires a new dining room manager, looks for a classier sommelier, fights city inspectors, calls on his acquaintances and asks them to bring their celebrity friends... nothing works.
He was blinded by his command of his true calling: being a customer. He saw the show from a comfortable box seat and only went backstage when invited by a knowing proprietor eager to glad-hand a moneyed patron. Our gastronome failed to see he knew very little about being a restaurateur, the intricacies, the people challenges (theft, drugs and sex), the politics that are involved in running a real restaurant.
(During my psychosocial moratorium, before I joined the high-tech industry in 1968, I worked in a bar, a food-serving strip-joint, and a restaurant. I thought these places were deranged. Decades later, I read Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential and realized the "people challenges" I witnessed aren't so unusual after all. Enjoy the book and think about the goings-on back there next time a maitre d' looks down his aquiline nose at you.)
Failed restaurants are common in Silicon Valley, with its crowd of affluent and well-traveled business people who think they can master the trade. A few of them subsidize the great dinners we get to enjoy -- for a while. They have our fleeting gratitude and end up with a painfully depleted bank account.
Is this a valid parable for Jeff Bezos plowing $250M (so far) into The Washington Post? To start, the price paid for the DC "paper of record" amounts to less than 1% of the Amazon founder's fortune. Even if he has to double or triple his initial investment while he turns the paper around, it won't trouble Bezos' pocketbook much -- he can eminently afford the bet.
And, unlike our failed restaurateur, I don't think Bezos' purchase was made in a mid-life fit of vanity. (Although see this delicious piece of Internet satire that contends he bought the paper as a result of a mistaken click.) Read Bezos' Wikipedia bio, or his letters to shareholders... you'll see he's a deep-thinking geek (now a term of respect. The Urban Dictionary updates the meaning: people you pick on in high school and wind up working for as an adult). He's justifiably famous for taking the very long view, and he's quotably willing to be "misunderstood" for a long time.
But can he win?
Personally, I hope so. I used to love newspapers, I remember how much I enjoyed breakfast with two local and two national papers, all delivered to my doorstep, an unimaginable luxury in France.
Once upon a time, for their advertising revenue, newpapers enjoyed an oligopoly. With three or four dailies in each market, prices were contained. And we, the readers, certainly didn't mind that advertisers paid 75% of the cost of our daily fix.
Then, the Internet that Bezos has ridden so well intervened and newspapers lost the news race. The Internet won on velocity and, too often, on relevance. In a Fortune Tech piece offering "5 hacks for Jeff Bezos", Ryan Holmes, CEO of Social Media Management company HootSuite, points to the speed and tone of social media as sources of fixes for the Post:
Perhaps the greatest criticism of newspapers today is that they have lost relevance to their own readers. Writing on the decline of the Post, New York Times media columnist David Carr points out that "[the] days when people snapped open the daily paper to find out the things they should care about were long past ..." Big newspapers, in particular, have proven startlingly inept at delivering timely, relevant news to the people they serve. So, naturally, readers have gone elsewhere, to myriad online sources that better cater to their interests.
Since the Net offered a seemingly unconstrained amount of billboard space, the price that newspapers could charge for ads was quickly cut by a factor of ten and, more recently, sixteen.
But it wasn't just the emergence of the Internet as a news medium that dealt newspapers a near fatal blow. They also lost the race because of internal, cultural circumstances.
In another case of the Incumbent's Curse, newspapers looked down on the Internet and those annoying high-tech people and things. Kara Swisher, co-head of AllThingsD (a Wall Street Journal enterprise), recounts her trouble with the old, arrogant culture at the Post in her Dear Jeff Bezos, Here's What I Saw as an Analog Nobody in the Mailroom of the Washington Post letter:
"It happened every day — other reporters playfully mocking me for using email so much or for borrowing the Post's few suitcase cellphones, or major editors telling me that the Internet was like the CB-radio fad, or sales people insisting that the good times would never end for newspapers as long as there were local businesses that needed to reach consumers. (In truth, they still do, but that's another letter.)"
Sadly, the Post's cultural reluctance isn't unique. In another country, two prominent dailies I know exhibit very similar symptoms, print journalists who actively despise or even obstruct the Internet side of their house.
Much has been written about Jeff Bezos' personal (not Amazon's) purchase of the Post. For example: Good Luck With That - Pew Research Graphs Bezos' Stunning Challenge, where Tom Foremski steps us through the Post's business challenges, starting with the inexorable decline in Print revenues:
Another comment well worth reading, Stop the Presses: A New Media Baron Appears, comes to us courtesy of Michael Moritz, a.k.a. Sir Michael, a journalist who went over to the Dark Side and is now Chairman of Sequoia Capital, a leading venture firm. The article reminds us of Bezos' foremost preoccupation with customers [emphasis mine]:
"It won't come as a surprise that Bezos explains that pleasing, if not thrilling, customers is Amazon's most important task. In his 2009 letter he provided a peek into the internals of Amazon explaining that of the company's 452 detailed goals for the ensuing year 360 had an impact on the customer, the word 'revenue' was used just eight times, 'free cash flow' only four times and 'net income', 'gross profit', 'margin' and operating profit were not mentioned. Even though there is no line item on any financial statement for the intangible value associated with the trust of customers this is, by far and away, Amazon's most important asset."
Elsewhere, Moritz reminds us of another source of Amazon's prosperity, Free Cash-Flow, a frequent topic in Bezos' letters to shareholders:
"Since inception Amazon has generated $20.2 billion from operations almost half of which ($8.6 B), has been used for capital expenditures such as new distribution centers, which improve life for the customer."
With this and more in mind, we now turn to the letter Bezos wrote to employees at the newspaper. While he professes no desire to "be leading The Washington Post day-to-day", he nonetheless makes no mystery of his goal to be an agent of change, of modernization, of adapting to the Internet Age:
"There will, of course, be change at The Post over the coming years. That's essential and would have happened with or without new ownership. The Internet is transforming almost every element of the news business: shortening news cycles, eroding long-reliable revenue sources, and enabling new kinds of competition, some of which bear little or no news-gathering costs. There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy. We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment. Our touchstone will be readers, understanding what they care about – government, local leaders, restaurant openings, scout troops, businesses, charities, governors, sports – and working backwards from there. I'm excited and optimistic about the opportunity for invention."
This comes from a man who, last year, said 'People Won't Pay For News On The Web, Print Will Be Dead In 20 Years'.
Changing business models as a publicly traded company is impossible in practice. The old model dies faster than the new one kicks in and Wall Street runs away from the transition's "earnings trough". By buying the Washington Post, Bezos is afforded a privacy that the old public ownership structure doesn't permit. (That's exactly why Michael Dell wants to take his own company private, so he can perform surgery behind the curtains.)
Which leaves the new owner with his biggest challenge: Understanding and changing the culture at the old "paper" -- which sounds harder and more expensive than a gastronome trying to become a restaurateur.
There will be blood.
This is no reflection on Bezos' truly amazing diversity and depth of skills, but a sincere concern borne of Culture's ability to devour anything that stands in its way, sometimes silently until it's too late. As the saying goes, Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast.
Of course, we have examples of people performing seemingly impossible feats. Steve Jobs' Apple 2.0 comes to mind, a turnaround of monumental proportions to which Bezos' Amazon achievements could be fairly compared. So, why couldn't Bezos build a WaPo 2.0?
As Aaron Levie, the founding CEO of Box, tweeted last week:
"Industries are transformed by outsiders who think anything is possible, not insiders who think they already know what is impossible."
One more thing, a thought I can't suppress: Unlike Steve Jobs, who gained insight from his tribulations and then spread the benefits on the largest of scales, Bezos hasn't been burned and tempered by failure.