Like most, Seattle Times Publisher and Chief Executive Officer Frank Blethen says he was initially shocked to hear Amazon’s Jeff Bezos had purchased the Washington Post.
“Well, the first news was just sort of shock, because nobody expected it,” says Blethen. “I mean, I’m not surprised the Post sold, but it never got on my radar screen that Jeff Bezos might be the buyer.”
When word broke yesterday that Bezos had acquired the storied paper for the paltry sum of $250 million, the online reaction ranged from mouth-agape bewilderment to widespread despair, with the news that the Graham family had decided to part ways with the Washington Post seeming to hit journalists particularly hard. Almost immediately fears arose about what Bezos had planned for the Post, and more acutely what the implications were of Amazon’s headman now controlling a respected voice in the other Washington.
“I’m still puzzling over it,” says Blethen of the Post’s sale price. “It appears to be a very astute assets purchase. … It’s a really low price.”
On a broader level, however, Blethen – who points to his long history fighting against media consolidation – says the purchase leaves him “cautiously optimistic.” In short, he’s pleased the paper has a private owner.
“I have incredible personal admiration for [the Grahams],” says Blethen. “I hate to see the loss of a family paper. … Once they went public, they started down that slippery slope. Clearly, financially they’d gotten to the point where they needed some rejuvenation.
“There’s good hope that this will bring something to the Post that will preserve, and enhance the whole industry,” Blethen observes of the Bezos purchase, saying that before news of the sale broke there had been rumors of cuts at the Post by year’s end.
“Hopefully now that wont happen,” he says.
Despite his stated optimism, Blethen says he can also understand the widespread apprehension about the move, especially from journalists working for the Post.
“Journalists are like anyone else, really. If you have uncertainty it makes you uneasy. Jeff Bezos is an unknown,” says Blethen. “Nobody really knows what to expect.”
Of course, the move is not without risks, and Blethen pinpoints the most obvious – will the Bezos-owned Post be able to maintain its independence and transparency while covering DC proceedings that the largest retailer in the world – Amazon – has a key stake in? Some of the biggest questions surround debates on net neutrality, online sales tax, union organizing, and antitrust issues.
“The rubber will hit the road when it comes to laws and regulatory issues,” says Blethen. “When you have an owner who controls the largest retailer in the world … a lot of the laws that control that business come out of DC.
“If he can be open on that, and transparent on that, and allow the Post to continue to do good, independent journalism, that would be terrific.”
While admitting Bezos has utilized business practices at Amazon that the Times “wouldn’t engage in,” Blethen remains impressed by the Post’s new owner.
“It is quite remarkable when you consider he’s the biggest retailer in the world, but he’s also one of the foremost technology companies in the world. I look at it and I say that the guy’s brilliant.”
Brilliant, sure, but that doesn’t mean Blethen would sell his paper to the Amazon headman. He indicates Bezos has never approached him about the possibility of purchasing the Times, and if he did it wouldn’t matter.
“We’ve never intended to sell, and never will sell,” says Blethen.