Dear Jeff Bezos, Here’s What I Saw as an Analog Nobody in the Mailroom of the Washington Post
While it might seem an awful cliche, the fact of the matter is — if you go back to a time long before the commercial Internet existed, and well before you became so rich that you have $250 million in spare change to purchase a major metropolitan newspaper — I started my real journalism career in the mailroom at the Washington Post.
On the storied fifth floor of the Post’s longtime building at 15th and L Streets, NW — which is now also prepping to be sold for about half of what you forked over for the Post itself (oh, the irony!) — I delivered piles of letters and packages to reporters and editors, starting when I was still a student at Georgetown University.
I had come there as both a mailroom lackey and also as a stringer, after I called and chewed out then-Metro editor Larry Kramer (now the
editor publisher of USA Today) about how badly the newspaper was covering the area’s colleges, including mine. He told me to come down to the Post and say it to his face, which I did with all the obnoxiousness a 19-year-old could muster.
As it turned out, I ended up staying at the Post — with a few short departures for things like graduate school — for almost 15 years, in more jobs than I can remember, including the lowest rung in the then-backwater business section.
It was there that my Internet career began, when I was assigned to write about a little company called America Online, which had its sorry headquarters behind a car dealership in suburban Washington, D.C. As it turned out, as you well know, the area was one of the key birthplaces of the modern Web, as one of the hubs of MAE-East, the Internet exchange point that ran up and down the East Coast of the U.S. and from which a number of early Internet companies were spawned after the government handed over the keys to the groundbreaking technology.
And it was then and there that I felt the first stirrings of the coming disaster that would soon envelop the Post and so many newspapers like it. Most of them never even seemed to see it coming, even when what was happening was right in front of them. It was there that I also first saw the extraordinarily stubborn resistance by old media — which still exists like some super-barnacle that will not detach from a sunken ship — to what the digital age meant.
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.)
But having been the principal retail reporter as one local shopping giant after another closed its doors to be replaced by national chains who did not advertise very much in newspapers, I saw that the terrible problem was made worse when the Post’s other revenue stalwart — classifieds — also seemed to be ripe for digital disruption.
I recall becoming very worried about this at the time, especially as I spent more time at AOL, which was growing like a weed (and, in many ways, was just as pernicious). It got worse as I started to meet and get to know the companies and technologies founded by digital pioneers like Marc Andreessen at Netscape (1993), Jerry Yang and David Filo at Yahoo (1995) and Pierre Omidyar at eBay (1995). And you — around 1994, of course — in that sketchy neighborhood in Seattle, where you toured me through your first office when you had a tiny staff but a lot of dreams of world domination.
To be fair, at the time, the Washington Post was not totally ignoring the changes. But it also began making a series of bad digital choices. For example, instead of investing a pittance in AOL back then — as it had the chance to do, an investment made instead by the Tribune Company and others that eventually was worth billions — the Post put its initial online eggs into what seemed like a safer bet. That was AT&T’s failed Interchange, a walled garden of a service, a collection of disparate online editions that was utterly upended by the Web itself (which was always called the World Wide Web back then).
Winter Is Coming
Like a lot of newspapers, the Post soon got to the Web, too, but with offerings that were not as compelling as those being created by native Internet companies, and with a series of ever-changing business plans that only served to confuse readers. While it is easy to see the problems now, the truth is, it was also easy to see them then.
To anyone with eyes, in fact, the Web was obviously a medium that was compelling and possibly world-changing, an ability that became more pronounced as Andreessen and Jim Clark took Netscape public on Aug. 9, 1995, and its shares doubled in the first day of trading.
To me, that was the money shot — quite literally — at the heart of the old media industry. Now, instead of just geeks dismantling the modern communications system and replacing it with an entirely new one, it was geeks with piles and piles of money doing it. Two years later, you did the same at Amazon, with an IPO that put its value at $438 million on the first trading day.
By then, I had left the Post, and had written a book on AOL and what its success and the success of similar companies meant to the future of media and society. I then headed to the Wall Street Journal’s San Francisco bureau in 1997 to cover these new moguls and to chronicle what I then felt would be their inevitable ascendence.
When Don Graham — who had taken over the helm of the company from his mother, Katharine Graham, and who is one of my personal heroes, for both his honorable ethics and his stalwart decency — asked me why I was leaving the Post after all those years, I had one simple reply: The flood was coming, and the Journal was on much higher ground for the moment than the Post.
Perhaps that might have seemed mercenary at the time, but the troubled situation seemed clear — as once copious revenues dried up, the pile of money it took to build and maintain the excellent staff of journalists at the Post would also become smaller and smaller, with no prospects in sight. And cutting back to a leaner and more efficient staff was tough for a family like the Grahams, who has been steadfast — sometimes to their own disadvantage — in making sure the Post newsroom had everything it needed.
It was always an honorable sentiment, but one that simply did not jibe with the times or how consumers — especially young people — now wanted to get their media. Even I, a lover of newspapers since I was a child, had stopped reading them in print form, which is not exactly a vote of confidence for a medium that pays your salary.
The Post, as many news organizations did, continued to stick with its obsession in maintaining the print product no matter what — which is easy to understand, but hard to truly grok. In D.C., a deeply insular culture that used to live and die with what was in the Post every day, one could easily imagine it felt like everything revolved around it and that such a habit would never change. And it is certainly easier to say that it is time to cut your losses with an old media that is still paying the bills than to jump 100 percent into one that is still forming.
More importantly, as a public company, the Post could not do that quickly, so it simply used the then-huge profits from its Kaplan education division to paper over the increasingly deep holes in the newspaper unit. But when Kaplan’s money juggernaut dropped 93 percent in just two years, the jig was up.
Actually, Foresight Is 20-20
To be fair, of all the many media types I met, Graham tried hardest to keep up, and was always looking at the latest trend in the Internet space. That included landing himself on the board of Facebook, and becoming an important mentor to founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg when he needed it most.
But while he got personal shares — which will go to charities when he leaves as a Facebook director — Graham also lost the Post billions when he did not press Zuckerberg to allow the company to invest in the then-nascent social network in 2005, an investment that was made instead by Accel Partners.
Even with Facebook’s stock only now rebounding, that was billions the Post could have used to make the transition it needed to make, and to figure out a way into the future, which had actually arrived many years ago. But the management of the Post, for all its efforts to create some great blogs and digital assets, never seemed willing to go for the Web in a significant way. While still in its early innings, I was always struck that it didn’t create Politico — some of its former top reporters did — an effort that was more often disdained by Posties than studied and perhaps even copied.
One could say hindsight is 20-20, of course, but what made me sad about the sale — and I was very sad when I heard of it — was that these laudable and smart people could not seem to figure it out, and had to turn to a magical Internet wizard to do so. In the coverage, that sentiment was echoed again and again — that you would somehow conjure up a series of fantastic new news products that would capture the imagination of all and return the paper to its former glory.
An added plus, Jeff: You have the gazillions of dollars needed to pull the Post through to the other side and allow it to maintain its top-notch standards in a world still unwilling to pay for some of those standards and the fine journalism that results.
Having not seen you in a while, after years of covering you closely in the early days, I can’t say where your state of mind is today. The Bezos I knew then was a restlessly curious and deeply erudite person, and you certainly have enough of the kind of gravitas needed to run a media company, compared to many in the Web industry who do not.
But, like pretty much every other Internet mogul I know, you also appear to relish the destruction of old memes as much building new ones to replace them. And while you are seen as patient by some, it is hard to imagine your hyperactive intellect being comfortable with the kind of slower deliberation that so often is how old media operates.
Thus, the sale of the Post is now being told as a tale of the Internet killing off old media, then swooping in, taking its rewards, and propping up what it has damaged. An invasion of the body snatchers, if you will — except with better data to tell us just what readers really want.
An Immodest Proposal
While technology expertise is surely important to the future of the Post and to all media, and it’s nice to have an extraordinarily wealthy guy that gets the Internet deeply on board, what’s actually going to matter to your success is very different than it seems.
I’ll focus here on the editorial side, since it will be those products that matter first, rather than the more nuts-and-bolts business-side overhaul.
To me, the most important trick is to deeply inculcate the joy of Internet journalism, without losing (actually restoring to some degree, after recent cutbacks) the great editorial values and breakthrough journalism of the Post. Fusing the old-media storytelling and news-integrity values that I learned at the Post with the Internet values of speed and personality — and, well, some level of fun at the right times — is critical.
In other words, make it clear that it is possible to do great journalism in an Internet way — even more possible because you’re freer and, most of all, readers want to read it that way. That entails inspiring the staffers of the newspaper to create content that is — as it has been — accurate, ethically sound, of high quality, but also much more compelling, and delivered in a way that modern customers want to consume it. Formulate those big stories primarily on the Web, and allow a conversation with readers to bubble up from there.
Except in some cases, that is simply not happening at the Post, where the Internet still — still — feels like an afterthought. As much as I like Wonkblog, for example, I love Nate Silver so much more. (And why didn’t the Post grab Silver, rather than Disney, and let him do whatever he wanted?)
Think of that: I. Love. Nate. Silver. You need to find more reporters and writers that readers love again, for all the right reasons, and not because they can string together a clever listicle (though, if truth be told, I love a good listicle). Spend a lot for some, because talent — as you know — is a key element. Reward that talent, too, especially those with an entrepreneurial bent, instead of treating staffers as if they were some fungible cog in the old-media engine.
It will cost you at first, but don’t listen to those who say money can no longer be made in media. It can, in lots of ways, although not a lot at first. You’re perfectly suited to understanding that, given how you have run Amazon for growth first and profits later. (Much, much later, I guess!)
I also don’t get why content at big newspapers remains differentiated as a “blog,” over a column or a news story. It’s all really a blog now, and not really, too, although at most newspapers, the word is used in a dismissive way or as a trash dump for lesser stories.
You can stop this by insisting to the staff and everyone else that it’s all one living, breathing news organization, and not a bunch of parts stuck together for convenience. No longer should the print be the show and the focus — and it still is at the Post, as far as I can tell — especially when much of the good stuff that is in the morning paper has already been completely chewed over online already.
In fact, just get rid of deadlines. They truly don’t matter anymore to readers, and are only about the process of putting out a print newspaper — I am guessing that you can think of ways to drastically streamline that. I am always struck by companies that are struggling do so, because they show off their org chart to consumers instead of focusing intently and solely on what they create.
If I were you, I would probably even begin to make plans now to dump the print newspaper altogether. Despite the hue and cry over it, we all know it’s coming, so you might as well start early on with what is plainly inevitable. That does not mean there will not be print products, but you know full well that you used to sell more analog books, and now the game is largely a digital one.
There is also the challenge, too, of training a group of editorial leaders who are immersed in the Internet and, more importantly, who enjoy being in it. I am always being pinged by journalists at big news companies about how much they are being pushed to be more “social” by their editors, to tweet more, to Instagram more, to Tumblr more.
How, they ask, do I and my staff at AllThingsD do it so much? What are the rules and practices they can follow to be successful? Who can they talk to about it? I never know how to answer these queries, because we simply live it. Trying to describe that is akin to explaining to someone how to breathe.
What else? Well, a ton.
But, I guess, most of all, don’t treat the Post like some precious thing that cannot be touched or changed. While you certainly should respect its vaunted traditions and hew to its ethical standards, that does not mean it gets to stay as it is. That’s the big danger here — that you start acting like a steward of history, rather than using the fantastic Washington Post brand to make some new history.
What a mistake that would be. There are already plenty of marble monuments in D.C. to pick from, and making the Post another one would be a shame. I know that’s not your style, but it would be an easy thing to do.
That said, a lot of success in journalism is about what it has always been about, and that will never change, even if we beam our stories to readers via chips embedded in our eyeballs. The medium may be the message, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, but the message is also the medium, and the two are inexorably linked now.
In actuality, McLuhan’s catchphrase was often misinterpreted — in “Understanding Media,” he noted that the medium was “any extension of ourselves.”
In other words, it’s about telling the best story you can in the most genuine way, and using the finest tools available at the time — which the Post once was able to do better than a lot of others for a very long time — to someone you hope will love it.
In fact, it is exactly like breathing.
I would go on, but this is already eight times too long for a “blog” post. So, good luck, Jeff. And one last thing — I am guessing that soon enough, you can probably dump the mailroom too. Joke! But not really.
(Photo of Washington Post building courtesy of Daniel X. O’Neil/Flickr)