During Martin Baron's tenure as executive editor at The Washington Post, a persistent issue arose when Jeff Bezos, the visionary entrepreneur and founder of Amazon, acquired the newspaper for $250 million in 2013. Bezos, who entered media ownership after transforming online shopping, had grand plans for The Post. He envisioned transforming it from a reputable regional news organization into a truly global force, taking full advantage of the "gifts of the internet" that had propelled Amazon to staggering success. However, as a shrewd businessman, Bezos kept a close eye on the budget, leading to certain challenges in executing his vision.
One of the obstacles encountered during the early years of Bezos' ownership was the question of staffing. With a focus on cost-effectiveness, Bezos hesitated to increase the number of editors at the newspaper, viewing them as "indirect" employees. Instead, he prioritized cost containment while still aspiring to make The Post a global news powerhouse. To circumvent potential budgetary alarms, Martin Baron and his deputies devised an ingenious workaround. They creatively reclassified proposed editor positions as "analysts" or "strategists," allowing them to pursue Bezos' vision without directly violating the budget constraints.
In the initial years, Bezos was largely hands-on, providing ample financial support to expand The Post's newsroom and offering valuable input on product decisions. He played a crucial role in hiring Fred Ryan, former chief executive of Politico, to serve as publisher, and he continued to endorse Baron as The Post's top editor until his retirement in 2021.
However, Bezos' level of involvement waned somewhat as Amazon's demands increased and he decided to step down as the company's chief executive. During this period, staff morale at The Post suffered, and the newspaper faced operational challenges. The decline in the number of paying customers following the 2020 election was a particularly troubling issue, leading to concerns about the newspaper's future sustainability.
Nevertheless, Bezos' commitment to The Post never fully wavered, and he remained invested in its success. In January, the situation took a turn when Sally Buzbee, the successor to Martin Baron, conveyed an urgent message to Bezos about the low morale among the staff. Part of the discontent was attributed to missteps by Fred Ryan, the chief business executive of The Post. Bezos, recognizing the significance of the issue, actively reengaged with the newsroom and became more hands-on in addressing the challenges faced by the publication.
In June, Fred Ryan announced his resignation and shared his plans to establish the Center on Public Civility, a new project under the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. Bezos generously agreed to fund the center, indicating his continued interest in supporting The Post's endeavors.
To lead the newspaper in Ryan's absence, Bezos appointed Patty Stonesifer as interim chief executive. A long-time friend and an Amazon board member for over two decades, Stonesifer brought a fresh perspective and energy to the role. Notably, she assumed the position without taking a salary, further demonstrating her commitment to the newspaper's success. Stonesifer immediately began to engage with the staff, seeking their feedback on both positive aspects ("flowers") and areas needing improvement ("weeds").
In her efforts to revitalize the publication, Stonesifer hired Alex MacCallum, a veteran from The New York Times and CNN, as The Post's chief revenue officer. Additionally, Vineet Khosla was named the newspaper's chief technology officer. These appointments indicated a commitment to strengthening The Post's operations and embracing technological advancements.
Bezos' involvement extended beyond management changes. He actively weighed in on an experimental project developed for The Post's opinion section, focusing on creating a platform for readers across the United States to submit their own opinions and commentary. The endeavor, being led by editorial page editor David Shipley, aims to re-engage readers who might have disengaged from mainstream news.
In the pursuit of renewal, other changes were planned at The Post. The 54-year-old Style section is set for a revamp in September, including an online redesign to attract a broader audience.
Bezos' commitment to The Post's future is unwavering, as he envisions the newspaper as a legacy for his family. With Bezos' support and Stonesifer's enthusiastic leadership, employees at The Post are hopeful about the publication's prospects. Despite occasional tensions, Sally Buzbee has continued to ensure the delivery of high-quality journalism, with The Post receiving recognition for its reporting, including two Pulitzer Prizes.
As The Post embarks on a new phase with fresh leadership and renewed vision, the newspaper's staff and its loyal readers eagerly anticipate what lies ahead. Bezos' journey as the owner of The Washington Post is a testament to the challenges and possibilities that await in the ever-evolving landscape of media and journalism.