On Monday, the publishing world was taken by surprise when it was announced that Amazon CEO and tech-world wunderkind, Jeff Bezos, was buying The Washington Post for $250 million. Bezos isn’t putting the Post into his Amazon box — it will be personally owned by him — and he is a neophyte in the publishing world. So what does his leadership mean for the Pulitzer Prize-winning, flagship paper that is one of the last bastions of journalistic integrity from the old world publishing?
Regardless of the analysis you read over the coming weeks, the answer is nobody knows — including Bezos himself. In his public statement on the day of the announcement he said, “We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment.”
And this realistic attitude of leadership adventure is why I have high hopes for the future of The Washington Post under Bezos’ owernship.
Bezos is often lauded for his vision — a sweeping reimagining of retail that is 20 years in the making and still “Day 1” in his estimation. It’s not clear that he brings such a broad and clear vision to the future of publishing, but I’m not convinced he needs to.
Retail, unlike publishing, can be more easily reimagined on a spreadsheet. While there are the ever-present vagaries of consumer behavior to contend with, the costs in the distribution network are pretty clear and easy to imagine re-engineered via technology. News and information delivery to a public whose YouTube views surpassed Google searches in 2009? Not quite so clear. The public’s interest in information is as complex as the brain plugged into the internet — and this is pretty hard to reimagine.
Traditionally, the news and publishing industry has not been at the forefront of figuring it out either. Newspapers struggling to stay afloat have been going out of business or selling to conglomerates at ever-increasing speed over the last decade as information dissemination via distributed sources — mostly connected by Google — takes the place of the morning paper.
So it will take a new approach to transform the traditional newspaper (back) into the “go-to” information source of the future. Here are three reasons I am excited to see where Bezos’ exploratory spirit takes The Washington Post next.
- Adventure & Persistence — Bezos embraces the unknown, which the publishing world is now full of, and trusts that the answer will reveal itself with enough experimentation, failure and persistence. He trusts the universe to make success discoverable, and so he is more likely to discover success.
- Patience & Investment — Bezos is infamously willing to annoy investors seeking short term gains in pursuit of long term strategies and investments that take time to pay off (to wit: Amazon.com). He believes that the last two decades “is Day 1 for the Internet” and that “we still have so much to learn.” Day 1 for the Internet is also Day 1 for a new era of publishing. He sees a beginning where so many others see an ending, and he’s willing to put money behind this belief.
- Customer Focus Through Data — Bezos has built his retail empire through a relentless focus on understanding the customer, but the “customer” has traditionally meant one thing in newspaper publishing: advertisers. Bezos is already signaling that he understands the true business model of news publishing more deeply when he says, “our touchstone will be readers.” He knows that while the advertisers have traditionally been (and most likely will continue to be) the primary revenue stream, the reader is the customer to please. Bezos also understands the power of data to reveal the most meaningful consumer behavior patterns, and he will no doubt bring this new focus to The Post. What would The Post’s news delivery look like through the data analysis and personalization schemes on Amazon.com? We might just find out.
What would your leadership portfolio look like through these lenses? Can you use Bezos’ new challenge as an opportunity to reimagine your own leadership focus? What would that look like?
And by the way, I want to send a shout out to the Graham family for having the strength to “do what was right for The Post.” In an interview on the day of the announcement, Don Graham, The Post Co. chairman and CEO said that the family that has owned the paper for four generations wanted to do more than make sure The Post survives; they want to ensure that it thrives in meeting it’s mission. This kind of principled leadership is just as refreshing as the adventure The Washington Post is embarking on. Thank you, Don Graham and Jeff Bezos for demonstrating what true leadership looks like when facing the unknown.
Dana Theus is president and CEO of InPower Consulting, creating business cultures by design that integrate the emotional intelligence lessons learned from studying women in leadership, and is a regular contributor to SmartBlog on Leadership. Follow her on Twitter at @DanaTheus and on LinkedIn.