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Will Jeff Bezos Reform the Washington Post?

Some years ago, I heard this story: one of my partners, who at the time was a young associate, got a phone call from a former college fraternity brother. The bro said that he was starting a company that would sell books on the internet, and would my partner-to-be like to invest? Sorry, he responded: I would like to, but I am only a lawyer and don’t have any money.

The fraternity brother, of course, was Jeff Bezos, and the company was Amazon. Amazon went on to become the world’s largest non-profit–tens of billions of dollars in annual sales, still operating at a loss after all these years. But investors don’t mind, and Bezos has become a billionaire. So when it was announced today that Bezos will buy the Washington Post for $250 million, I thought: it is a marriage made in Heaven! If anyone can show the Post how to prosper while losing money, it is Jeff Bezos!

Will Bezos’s purchase shake things up at the Post? The conventional answer is: No, he’s a liberal. And it is true that, while to my knowledge he has otherwise been silent, Bezos is a vocal supporter of gay marriage. But businessmen who work 80 to 100 hours a week, as I would guess Bezos does, are often surprisingly non-ideological. Not just non-ideological, but astonishingly ignorant of politics except insofar as it impinges on their business. Bezos may well be one of those clueless souls who actually believe that the key difference between left and right in America is gay marriage. He is, himself, a ferocious and disruptive competitor, and one would think that he almost has to have an appreciation of free enterprise. If so, he might bring a new and refreshing perspective to a hidebound newspaper.

On the other hand, it is doubtful whether any change of ownership can have much impact on a monolithically liberal news organization. If a new owner tried to influence editorial policy or news coverage, one can’t even imagine the hysteria that would result. In today’s world, even the most conservative owner would probably be forced by convention to stand by and defer to the left-wing JournoList consensus.

Still, one can’t help speculating: what might it mean for a major media organization, other than News Corp., to be owned by someone with actual experience competing in the marketplace? The very concept is subversive.

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