Does it matter that Bezos won’t move to D.C.?


I won’t be leading The Washington Post day-to-day. I am happily living in “the other Washington” where I have a day job that I love.

It is, admittedly, an odd connection to draw. But when Jeff Bezos, founder of the online retail colossus Amazon, said he wouldn’t leave Seattle to take up residency in the hometown of the legendary newspaper he had just bought, I thought of the final scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” That’s when the ark, whose immense power had been so fiercely sought for the entire movie, is trundled on a forklift into a warehouse, fittingly enough, in Washington. And the camera pulls back to reveal the vastness of the cavernous space where it’ll be kept and, apparently, abandoned—its might untapped and unrecognized.

Of course, The Post isn’t being abandoned. Although Bezos probably won’t stick to his initial pronouncements about leaving its management intact—transformational business tycoons usually have their own ideas about leadership—for now it’s a safe bet that the Post will remain an energetic, gutsy and fully engaged news organization.

But to me, as somebody who grew up in Washington and who broke into the news business in the Post’s shadow during Watergate, the very idea that the paper’s proprietor wouldn’t be thrilled to take the throne that comes with the title is more telling and more poignant than any other element of the story.

In a way, the Bezos case offers the mirror image of the flap over the possible purchase by the billionaire Koch brothers of media heavyweight Tribune Co. There, the brothers’ ideological ambitions were thought to be driving their interest, with their supposed wish to see a stronger libertarian cast to news coverage  drawing them to an investment that had meager financial appeal.

There, whether people were cheered or appalled by the possible Koch takeover, they agreed that the acquisition mattered—not so much because it might infuse money or managerial smarts into an ailing company, but because it could have an impact on the public sphere, on policy talk, on civic discourse. With news proprietorship comes a seat at the grownups’ table. That’s the deal.

Bezos may not want to sit at the table, but that seems unlikely in view of the extraordinary impact his company is having on global retail—the adoring takeout in the current issue of Fast Company magazine is an eye-opener in laying out the breadth of Amazon’s revolutionary impact on the way goods are sold worldwide.

Indeed, there’s nothing in his past to suggest that Bezos would shy away from wielding influence. The more disquieting possibility is that he doesn’t think being an absentee owner of The Washington Post would mean he’s giving up any. Continue reading “Does it matter that Bezos won’t move to D.C.?”

Two cheers for the news ombudsman

Word that The Washington Post was doing away with the job of ombudsman after 43 years was greeted, by and large, with a shrug and a yawn by news habitués.

As Reuters’ redoubtable press critic Jack Shafer observed: “If there has been any protest — organized or piecemeal — against The Post for retiring the ombudsman position, I’ve missed it. I’ve witnessed greater reader noise after the cancellation of a comic strip from the Post.”

It’s no surprise that news ombudsmen, whose job is to investigate reader complaints and share their findings publicly, have never been beloved by publishers or, for that matter, by journalists. Companies don’t normally pay to be embarrassed, and few professionals welcome being pilloried publicly for their mistakes. Ombudsmen do both.

But it’s a little surprising that the public cares so little that a major news organization is killing off its marquee contribution to the closest thing this country has to media self-regulation. After all, when they’re doing their job—as the Post’s ombudsmen often have—these are people who make a serious, Continue reading “Two cheers for the news ombudsman”