When Jeff Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon.com, stunned the media world by buying The Washington Post, he claimed to have no set plan for how to reverse the decline of one of the world’s most storied newspapers.
But judging from his past, he has more than a few ideas.
America’s latest newspaper mogul is an online visionary, a hard-core capitalist and a voracious reader (nearly always in digital formats, with the exception of cookbooks).
Mr. Bezos, whose estimated net worth is $25-billion (U.S.), built Amazon into an e-commerce leviathan from scratch. Along the way, he developed a few guiding principles: invest for the long term, pay fanatical attention to your customers and experiment often.
The emphasis on long-term thinking is a constant for Mr. Bezos. Amazon, founded in 1994, went public in 1997 and didn’t turn a profit until 2001. Thirteen years ago, he founded Blue Origin, a company whose current preoccupation is building a rocket to outer space that can launch and land vertically. At a remote mountainside in Texas, Mr. Bezos, 49, is giving his philosophy a physical symbol: He is building a clock designed to last for 10,000 years.
No one expects The Washington Post to be around quite that long. But the purchase is a bet that a little patience and some deep pockets will help an iconic brand weather a rocky transition to the digital age, said Brad Stone, a journalist who has authored a forthcoming book on Amazon called The Everything Store.
Mr. Stone added that, like every new media mogul, Mr. Bezos likely has a mixture of motivations, some more high-minded than others. As Amazon continues to expand, it will be “increasingly analyzed by regulators and legislators,” Mr. Stone said. “Maybe that somehow fit into his calculus as well.”
Mr. Bezos runs a company where the spirit of invention is prized – even when such innovations cannibalize its existing businesses. After all, Amazon began as a book retailer that ended up launching the Kindle e-reader. “When things get complicated, we simplify by saying what’s best for the customer,” said Mr. Bezos in an interview earlier this year. “And then we take it as an article of faith if we do that, it’ll work out the long term.”
While Mr. Bezos loves to read – newspapers, non-fiction, a novel here and there – he is not sentimental about the future of the print product. Indeed, there will not be any printed newspapers 20 years from now, he predicted last November, except “maybe as luxury items in some hotels that want to offer them as an extravagant service.” He also voiced skepticism about attempts to make readers pay for news online, with the exception of editions delivered via tablets.
Given Mr. Bezos’s already full plate – he spends four days a week at Amazon, one day at his space venture, helps oversee a family foundation and other investments, and is the father of four children – he is not expected to involve himself in the daily running of the paper. Then again, this is the man who also continues to innovate in managing his own calendar: He no longer holds one-on-one meetings, Mr. Stone said, as a way to save time.
Editor’s note: This story originally incorrectly stated that Amazon went public in 1994. In fact, the company was founded in 1994 and went public in 1997.