Whenever a multibillionaire like Jeff Bezos pulls out his personal checkbook and shells out $250 million of his own money for a newspaper, you have to wonder what was going through his head. Now that the news of this purchase is several days old, the guesses as to Bezos’s motivations for such an incongruous act have been hitting the fan. I figured it was my turn to weigh in.
So, why did Jeff Bezos buy the Washington Post?
· He clicked the wrong button. I had to start with this suggestion from Andy Borowitz at the New Yorker. Hey, it’s not the worst reason on this list!
· He thought it would be cool to own a newspaper. In other words, is he going to treat the Post as a hobby? I don’t think so. He probably does think it’s cool, but that’s not his main reason for the purchase. The evidence: the money sink hobbies he actually does believe are cool, namely the 10,000 Year Clock and the recovery of parts of Apollo 11. These two projects are frankly way cooler than a stuffy old newspaper. And far less likely to make any money.
· He wants to influence the news. This suggestion simply doesn’t hold water. The Post has a well-respected team of journalists, and most of them would bail if the new owner meddled in editorial. But the main reason this isn’t the justification for the purchase is that it would backfire. Such influence would come to light sooner or later, and at that point the entire investment would go down the tubes. Bezos is simply too smart for that.
· It’s a trophy. True, disgustingly rich people don’t think like ordinary folk, and many of them do compensate for their personal shortcomings by buying trophy yachts or chateaus or whatever. And yes, a few other one-percenters have bought their own newspapers, so maybe Bezos wants to be part of this exclusive Citizen Kane club. But the basic fact remains that the newspaper business is well on its way down a long death spiral. Bezos is going to need to do something with it or it’ll eventually die a horrible death. What kind of trophy is that?
· He wants to leverage synergy with Amazon.com. Something along the lines of news for the Kindle, right? Not so fast. First of all, you can already get news on your Kindle. Buying an entire newspaper to somehow get better or faster news on such a device would be an extraordinary waste of money. But the main reason we know that Amazon synergies aren’t motivating the Post purchase is because Bezos didn’t have Amazon do the deed. He wrote the check himself, independent of Amazon.
· He wants to disrupt the entire media industry. Bingo. If you look at what Bezos has been doing with Amazon, the pattern becomes clear. He sees himself as a disrupter in chief. He disrupted the book business, he disrupted retail in general, and with Amazon Web Services, he’s disrupting the entire information technology industry. He didn’t pick up a newspaper in spite of the aforementioned death spiral, he bought the Post because of the industry death spiral. If there was ever a business in desperate need of disruption, it’s the news – and with it, media in general. And Bezos believes he’s just the man to do it.
So what will Bezos actually do with the Washington Post? Time will tell. But I can promise you, whatever he does, it will be unexpected, controversial, and transformative. We expect no less from Jeff Bezos.