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Yesterday’s announcement that The Washington Post would be sold to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos shocked the newspaper industry. The deal is the latest in a series of consolidations, driven by a migration to online sources. Print newspaper advertising revenues have fallen 55 percent in the past five years. At The Post, revenues had fallen for seven straight years. Four days ago, The New York Times Company sold The Boston Globe for $70 million, having paid more than $1 billion for it in the early 1990s. The Post sale ends four generations of ownership by the Graham family. Diane and her guests discuss the sale of The Washington Post and the future of print journalism.
- Ken Auletta Staff writer at The New Yorker.
- Ken Doctor Author of "Newsonomics" and news industry analyst for Outsell. He spent 21 years with Knight Ridder and blogs at newsonomics.com
- Lucy Dalglish Dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at University of Maryland.
- Tom Rosenstiel Executive director of American Press Institute.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The Washington Post Company announced yesterday it was selling its newspaper to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. The $250 million deal marks the end of four generations of ownership by the Graham family. The Washington Post sale is just the latest in a series of blockbuster deals by media companies to address plunging revenues and declining circulation.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me to talk about the sale of The Washington Post and what it means for the future of print journalism, Tom Rosenstiel of the American Press Institute and Lucy Dalglish of the University of Maryland. Joining us from his office in New York City, Ken Auletta of The New Yorker magazine. I hope you'll join in the conversation, give us a call at 800-433-8850, send us an email to email@example.com, follow us on Facebook, or send us a tweet. Welcome to all of you.
MS. LUCY DALGLISHThank you.
MR. TOM ROSENSTIELHi.
REHMKen Auletta, are you there?
MR. KEN AULETTAOh, I'm here. Yes. Sorry.
REHMGood. Nice to have you with us. Give us your reaction...
AULETTAI didn't fall asleep.
REHMI'm sure you didn't. Give us your reaction to the announcement of the sale.
AULETTAAnyone who says they weren't shocked is not telling the truth. It was stunning. I mean, a Washington Post reporter called me, and he said, you know, there's this thing just came across the wire that Washington Post just sold. I said, you mean the TV station or Slate magazine? He said, no, no, the newspaper. I said, oh, my God. I can't believe it. And then when they said to who, Jeff Bezos, I couldn't believe it doubly.
REHMWhat is Bezos buying, and what is he not buying, Ken?
AULETTAHe's just buying -- he's buying just the newspaper and some of the other affiliated newspapers with The Washington Post Company for $250 million. It's a very -- I mean, it's cheap as was the sale of The Boston Globe this week for $70 million. But it's -- one of the things that's happening, newspapers are dying a slow death.
AULETTAAnd here you have the great disruptor in technology, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, saying he's going to put his pocket change in as an investment in The Washington Post. And the truth is, one of the hopeful things here -- there are some negatives involved -- but one of the hopeful things is he's Mr. Digital who's going to hopefully try and figure out, is there a future in the digital universe for newspapers?
REHMKen Auletta, he's staff writer at The New Yorker magazine. He writes the "Annals of Communication" column. Turning to you, Tom Rosenstiel. Why Jeff Bezos?
ROSENSTIELWell, I think the Graham family was looking for a steward who shared their values, who had deeper pockets than what Donald Graham has described as a small company in The Washington Post Company and someone who had fresh eyes and understood the digital world and could bring a new view to this. We have a cohort, a small cohort of new owners who see value in newspapers if they're purchased at the right price.
ROSENSTIELThis includes Aaron Kushner at The Orange County Register who also has a digital background, John Henry in Boston, buying The Boston Globe, and even Berkshire Hathaway and Warren Buffet who see value in newspapers if they're operated differently. The interesting thing about newspapers is that they're -- the fundamental crisis they face is a revenue crisis. It's the loss of advertising.
ROSENSTIELIf you take their digital audience and their print audience and combine it, that number is higher than people think. According to Scarborough Research, 59 percent of adults 18 to 24, 18 to 24 read a newspaper on a weekly basis, but they're encountering that media on Twitter, Facebook, social media, other places, not in print.
REHMTom Rosenstiel, he's executive director of the American Press Institute. Turning to you, Lucy Dalglish, is it all about money?
DALGLISHI think it's a lot about money, but I think in choosing the purchaser that they did -- Jeff Bezos has known Don Graham for probably at least a decade. They meet every summer Sun Valley, and I think Don in particular has spent a lot of time trying to understand the digital universe. He's been on the board of Facebook. I think he's made it a point to get to know people in the digital world.
DALGLISHSo I think it was about money. It was about survival of the post-digital product. I tend to not think of it as a newspaper anymore. I think of it as a digital platform where they are delivering news in many different ways. But I think he must have also had a conversation with him about other values that the Graham family has always had. And I think they've very carefully chose who they were going to sell this to.
REHMGoing back to Ken Auletta's first comment of shock, what about the secrecy involved here, Lucy?
DALGLISHWell, it is interesting to have a publicly traded company go out and solicit purchasers. They're taking the company private. There are probably some people who are going to look askance at that and...
REHMWhat does that actually mean?
DALGLISHWell, usually when you have a publicly traded company, you -- if you're going to sell, it's a more public process because shareholders expect to know what kind of a value they're going to get out of their purchase, you know, out of the sale of their stock. And you would expect to see a private company selling in secret to a private company.
DALGLISHI don't necessarily think there's anything wrong with the way this happened. But I think, ordinarily, the process with publicly traded companies -- probably a little bit more like the way The New York Times did, the Boston, the sale of The Globe. Everybody knew The Globe was up for sale -- typically, there's more knowledge out there when these properties are going up for sale.
DALGLISHThere's a little bit more scuttlebutt than there was in this particular case. But I think they decided to go for a purchaser who could give them really good value and could maintain what to the best that they think they can maintain some of the values for the community.
REHMLucy Dalglish, she's...
REHM...dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. Though The Washington Post might seem like a local newspaper, it truly has become a national newspaper when we think about the resignation of the president of the United States Richard Nixon that anniversary is just three days away. So it's really extraordinary that The Washington Post, of course, was very involved in that Watergate break-in, in reporting on it and in bringing down a president of the United States.
REHMI know you want to get in on that, Ken.
AULETTAWell, the thing that I think going private adds another dimension to this, which is if you listen -- if you read Don Graham's statement and his niece's statement who's the publisher of the paper, they said this was done for the shareholders. I don't think that's true. I think this was done for the journalistic future of The Washington Post.
AULETTABy going private, it means that you're not reporting your quarterly earnings or losses to Wall Street every quarter. And that -- what that means is that you have more freedom, and that dovetails very nicely with Jeff Bezos' philosophy. If you look at him, Amazon actually lost money last year despite its growth.
AULETTAIt was not purchased in stock price because people see Amazon expanding, but it -- what it represents is Jeff Bezos' idea that you invest in a long-term future. What Donald Graham is doing is trying to preserve the value, the journalistic values that The Washington Post had stood for that allowed them to go after Nixon and expose Watergate and published the Pentagon papers. And he's hoped -- and it's all of our hope that it's true -- that Bezos will be a guardian of those values.
ROSENSTIELThe challenge facing these legacy media companies is they are both mature industries on one side and emerging industries on the other. And the problem, the box they've been in is they need to operate like mature industries to make Wall Street happy, which limits their ability to invest, take risks, make mistakes, go down dry holes. If you're an emerging industry in Silicon Valley, you build brand and market share, and you tell your V.C. investors don't worry about making a profit, we'll do that in 10 years as we build up our audience.
REHMOK. But here's the trick that Jeff Bezos is going to have to perform so he's paid $250 million in cash which apparently represents less than 1 percent of his total income. How much, how far is he willing to go to keep this newspaper afloat at the same time he keeps all the other platforms going? We don't know.
ROSENSTIELWe don't know the answer to that, but do the math. He could lose $100 million a year -- $100 million a year he could lose for the rest of his life, and he would -- and he'd still have $21 billion in the bank. So these pockets are not just deep. They are almost limitless.
REHMKen Auletta, do you think he'll go that far?
AULETTANo. But I don't -- I think he will go far. I mean, I think -- first of all, we don't know the answer to Jeff Bezos' philosophy here because Jeff Bezos is like Steve Jobs. He's not someone who's readily accessible to the press.
AULETTAHe doesn't do interviews. He talked to one reporter to my knowledge, and that was a reporter for The Washington Post.
REHMOK. I've got to stop you there. Ken, we'll come back to you after a short break.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about the sale -- the announcement of the sale of The Washington Post to Amazon owner, leader, proprietor, Jeff Bezos, for $250 million cash. The announcement came yesterday, shocked the entire publishing world. With us today: Ken Auletta. He's staff writer at The New Yorker magazine. And as he said just before the break, he was, at one time, a reporter for The Washington Post. And, Ken, you're right. Jeff Bezos did talk to one reporter, and it was at The Washington Post, the newspaper he had just acquired. What did he have to say?
AULETTAWell, he said that he's going to be -- he's going to keep the existing management team, meaning the publisher, the CEO of The Washington Post newspaper and the editor of the newspaper and of the editorial page. And he's got a company to run, he said, Amazon, and he's not going to be deeply involved. But this we know about Jeff Bezos: he is the great disruptor, as Fortune magazine called him by making the man of the -- their business person of year last year.
AULETTAAnd what that means he's a guy who loves to challenge. He disrupted the book industry. He's disrupting the book -- not just the book industry but the retail sales of grocery business. He is a man who loves the idea of figuring out how to use the Internet and the digital world to provide things to consumers more efficiently and better and cheaper. And so here is this guy, this mad scientist, if you will, come to The Washington Post.
AULETTAHe's going to be sitting there and loving the idea of figuring out something that all of us in journalism are anxious to know the answer to, if there is an answer, which is, how do I make money in the digital world as people -- as I sell fewer and fewer and maybe one day no newspapers in print? But how do we monetize the digital world?
AULETTAAnd that's the big question.
REHMAnd indeed, we have questions now for Ken Doctor, who's joining us from Santa Cruz, Calif. He is a news industry analyst for Outsell. He writes the "Newsonomics" column for Harvard's Nieman Journalism Lab. He spent 21 years with Knight Ridder and blogs at newsonomics.com. Welcome back to the show, Ken.
MR. KEN DOCTORGood to be here.
REHMTalk about the business environment that newspaper companies are facing generally and specifically what The Post was dealing with.
DOCTORSure. It's a dismal environment. The worse thing that's going on is the shift of advertising dollars from print to digital. So last year, that was 89 percent in the United States overall for daily newspapers. It's going to be about the same this year. And when you look long term, it's astounding. About $50 billion in advertising money was spent 10 years ago in newspapers, and it'll be maybe 21, 22 billion this year, so a loss of, you, know, almost $30 billion a year.
DOCTORNow, The Post actually is doing a little worse than its peers, and it is unprofitable -- mildly unprofitable, one or 2 percent. Most of the Metros are five to 10 percent profitable, but they've cut their newsrooms much more deeply than The Washington Post. The big ray of hope and the positive has been this paywall movement. And The New York Times has gotten the most publicity, started its charging for digital access 2 1/2 years ago and has had quite a success with that, pulling in probably another $150 million a year.
DOCTORThe Post just put up a paywall two months ago, but there are now a third of American dailies that have paywalls, and they're generating maybe five, 6 percent extra revenue. Basic arithmetic here: They're losing more in advertising, mainly print, than they're gaining in reader revenue, but they are gaining in reader revenue. And they're getting, most of them, a little closer to being revenue-neutral where they could start to grow again.
DOCTORThat's the positive argument for Bezos.
REHMAll right. Let me ask you about Warren Buffett and the role he may have played in the sale. Of course, he himself has been buying up newspapers for more than a year. Do you think he played a role as a long-time friend of Katharine Graham and a long-time advisor to The Washington Post?
DOCTORYeah. And I think he played that role probably two ways. One, in terms of the relationship that you note that relationship is always important in business. And, secondly, with Buffett buying into the business last year and having more than five dozen dailies, that's a signal that he thinks there is value there long term. He is a long-term investor in newspapers. And Bezos has got to be saying -- if he's making this investment, this is a long-term investment. This is a five to 10-year investment, at least.
DOCTORAnd Buffett certified that.
REHMOK. I want to bring everybody in on this question: Is Jeff Bezos trying to buy a position in terms of a voice, or is he really going to allow that newspaper to continue to report the news as it is, or is he going to try to influence that news with his own positions? Ken Auletta.
AULETTAThe truth is, Diane, we don't know the answer to that question. But we know this, that the real danger that any newspaper faces when a business person, a mogul, takes it over, this is true in Boston case with John Henry, the owner of the Boston Red Sox, buying The Boston Globes, as is true with Jeff Bezos buying The Washington Post. That question is not whether they will, with a long arm, reach and then say, don't print this story or print this story.
AULETTAThe real worry is anticipatory censorship, that the reporters in the newsroom, will they be wary of certain stories? Will they, you know, silently basically conform to what they anticipate Jeff Bezos' whims or John Henry's whims are in covering the Boston Red Sox? That's the danger, anticipatory censorship. Would Jeff Bezos be stupid enough to reach in? The same question was asked of GE when it bought NBC and NBC News. GE never, that I could find, never reached in and says, don't run this story.
AULETTABut they didn't run a story on pollution on the Hudson. It was GE's responsibility on Today Show at the time because the publishers -- the executive producer of the Today Show decided that -- we shouldn't run the story. That's the danger you always have in a situation like this. But are they going to be stupid enough, Bezos going to be stupid enough to reach in? It would be such a scandal that it would harm his brand.
REHMKen Doctor, how do you answer that question?
DOCTORI agree with Ken. And I think in terms of the reporting, you're going to have that kind of chill in the back of the head because it's hard for journalists to get other jobs even if they absolutely want to do the right thing. But journalists tend to push back against authority. It's in the DNA of journalists. I think it's on the opinion pages that will be interesting to watch. Sales tax issues have been huge issues, now largely resolved. But you have huge privacy issues coming up, and Amazon is the king of data. This is...
REHMYou also have big workplace issues coming up, Tom Rosenstiel.
ROSENSTIELTom Johnson, who was the publisher of the Los Angeles Times and -- was eventually forced out by the family, the Chandler family, said that after a career in media, he had come to the conclusion that the single most important thing driving what happens in a news company is not the structure of the ownership, whether it's private, public, individual, corporate, but the values of the person who controls the most stock.
ROSENSTIELIt's a personal thing. He or she chooses who the managers are, sets a tone, that trickles down. Everything else is secondary. And we probably don't know how Jeff Bezos reacts to all of the sorts of small problems that are going to come his way as the owner here. And -- so this will be discovered, I think, how much will he intervene or not intervene. He probably doesn't even know the answer of that himself.
REHMAnd, of course, Lucy, he has already said he wants to keep the operating structure pretty much as is. But what about the shareholders? What happens there?
DALGLISHWell, you know, as Tom mentioned earlier today, there is a dual structure of The Washington Post. And the Graham family and the other investors that have a certain level of stock have far more control than just investors on the street. They will be getting, you know, payout of some sort. The family and the other people close to them who have the other -- that higher level of stock will, you know, be getting a payout.
DALGLISHI think it will be interesting, as Tom said, to see the choices that are made in the next level of hiring people because they are, as you said, Diane, they're keeping the president, they're keeping the publisher there, keeping the editor. But one thing we know is that change is constant. And when it comes time, and it's inevitable, to replace some of the -- some combination of those people, we'll be looking very carefully at who he chooses to be leaders in The Washington Post.
REHMKen Doctor, what happened at the Orange County Register? What can we draw from that sale?
DOCTORWell, The Register was sold about a year ago, and it now serves as a top example of someone believing you have to invest in the industry. You have to invest in content and journalists to make the future. So Aaron Kushner, who's a Bostonian who tried to buy the Globe five years ago and was rebuffed by the Times, bought the Orange County Register, took a look at it and said, they have hollowed this place out.
DOCTORI need to hire more than a hundred journalists. I need to do a lot more local journalism. I need to add news pages to the page, to the paper. I'll do all that first and investing, I believe, eight to $10 million, and then I'm going to put in a pay system for digital readership. And I'm going to do other things to increase prices.
DOCTORWe don't know the financial results from that yet. But the whole industry is watching that because it's a contrarian approach. It says you need to do more to get more dollars rather than cut your way into the future, which is what most of the industry has done. So can Bezos and The Post, John Henry at The Globe, would they adopt a similar model, is going to be a big question going forward.
REHMKen Doctor, he's news industry analyst for Outsell, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Ken Auletta, what about The New York Times? I was, I think, doubly stunned by the fact that on Sunday in The New York Times style section was this huge two-page profile of Katherine Weymouth, the granddaughter of Katharine Graham, who is now the publisher of The Washington Post.
REHMAnd it talked about the challenges she faced, talked about her balance of professional and personal life. Why do you think The New York Times ran that story on Sunday? Was there an insider's bit of information or what?
AULETTANo. Not -- no. No. In fact, the proof that there was no insider knowledge is the story was silent about a prospective sale of The Washington Post.
REHMYeah. You bet.
AULETTAIf I were the reporter who wrote that story, I would not want to be near Jill Abramson, the editor of The New York Times.
REHMIt was Sheryl Stolberg.
REHMIt was Sheryl Stolberg.
AULETTA...but not getting this.
REHMYou think? What do you think, Ken?
DOCTORI think that they didn't know about it, and I think the editors of the Times are probably upset that they had no inkling and gave the readers no hint that the next day, The Washington Post was going to be sold.
REHMDo you think Sheryl Stolberg knew?
DOCTORNo, I don't think she knew.
DOCTORWhat she said -- I've seen her quoted as saying, they assigned me the story several months ago, but I couldn't get around to it (unintelligible) now.
DOCTORBut she didn't get -- and, look, no one got the story. You know, the presumption would be that because she was talking to Katharine, you know, the publisher of The Washington Post, that she would have shared the secret with her. But the truth is she didn't have it, and if you're an editor of a newspaper, you're embarrassed that you...
REHMAll right. I'm going to open the phones now. Let's go first to Framingham, Mass. Hi there, Nancy. You're on the air.
NANCYYes. Good morning, Diane.
NANCYI'm a first-time caller...
REHMGood to have you.
NANCY...and I do see you very much as a moderate moderator, thank goodness.
NANCYIn Framingham, usually at this time of the morning, 10 o'clock to -- 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., I often listen to a reading service broadcast over the Framingham State University Radio in my community. It reads from all kinds of publications 24 hours a day. So usually at 10 a.m., I may choose to listen to a reading from The Globe, followed -- for an hour, followed by Boston Globe, followed by an hour of the Boston Herald. At noontime, I listen to half an hour of the Christian Science Monitor...
NANCY...things like that. And maybe later today I might -- a reading from The New York Times magazine. That's also broadcast.
NANCYSo about The Washington Post, I think it's regrettable that somebody, the Grahams or whatever, have sold out or maybe been forced to sold out. In the evening on this college station, a reading service is broadcast throughout Eastern Massachusetts. I can get in the evening a reading for an hour from The New York Times, followed by The Washington Post for an hour. And on a daily basis, day after day, both of the newspapers have an entirely different approach.
REHMWell, that is, in fact, the case, and everybody wants a wide spectrum of reading or listening, as Nancy does. Lucy.
DALGLISHWell, I think it's wonderful that all of that is available to you, Nancy. You know, I think The Washington Post under Bezos will have a voice. I think The New York Times will continue to have a voice. I think -- but you're going to see changes in the way news is delivered to you. You're not going to see those longer articles. You're not -- you're going to see a lot more quick hits, a lot more digital interaction with listeners and viewers, and each community is going to continue to be different.
REHMLucy Dalglish, she is dean of the Philip Merrill School of Journalism at the University of Maryland. Short break. More of your calls when we come back. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. As we talk about the sale of The Washington Post from the Graham family, which has held it for four generations, to Jeff Bezos, the founder and owner of Amazon and, of course, Amazon.com, questions are all over the place. Here's one from Jeff in Dallas, Texas. He says, "Where does Jeff Bezos make political contributions? Which political candidates does he support and for what causes does he lobby?" Ken Auletta.
AULETTANot a big contributor but their PAC -- the Amazon PAC -- Political Action Committee, they could basically put it equally to Democrats and Republicans. He is known as a libertarian, and he supposedly has a passion about that. He and his wife did support and put, I think, $2.5 million into a state referendum to permit gay marriage in the state of Washington. So he feels passionately about that. But he is not taking a high-profile position at all on political matters.
REHMAnd here's an email from Keith in Florida, "With Bezos's wealth, maybe all he's trying to do is stop Murdoch or some other conservative media empire from controlling the news." What do you think about that, Ken Doctor?
DOCTORWe are having a battle of billionaires in a way. And we see that going on across the country in all of these sales. We're going to see the Murdochs, we're going to see John Henrys in Boston. I don't see it as a specific anti-Murdoch move, but I do see it as the old fraternity of newspapers has broken up. And we have many new players now able to buy in very cheaply, make a cheap bet considering their own fortunes. So we're going to see more of that, though we've seen in from San Diego and Doug Manchester to big titans like Rupert Murdoch.
REHMAll right. To Falls Church, Va. Hi there, Ed.
EDGood morning, Diane.
EDHi. It's great that you and your informed staff have jumped on this -- guests have jumped on this topic so well. My perspective is very local. I grew up in this area, and I've read The Washington Post all my life. And my habit is to go first to the Metro section and read about what's going on locally that affects me. And sometimes I was very intimately involved and that I was running for office. And I would look for the poached position on my candidacy for re-election basically.
EDAnd I was always so greatly relieved and fortunately that I did get The Post endorsement. The meant a lot of me as a local official. And I think it means a lot to us here in Northern Virginia and, I think, all over the area. So I'm concerned. Will -- I'm not in that situation now, but for those who do run for office and look for an endorsement, you know, they're going to be anxious to see what The Post has to say.
REHMAnd local news generally, Tom Rosenstiel.
ROSENSTIELYeah. The Post has an unusually high -- what they call penetration, meaning a larger percentage of households in this market buy The Washington Post than is true of other big city metros because of the political nature of the community. And The Post has believed in making local endorsements. They put a bigger stock on local news. They have not tried to be a national newspaper as much as they once thought about being.
REHMAnd once were.
ROSENSTIELAnd once were. Although, online, it's very much an international product, and it's the ebb and flow of its audience digitally shows that in foreign capitals, in the middle of the night, the readership is very high. So The Post, the modern digital Post has to be both a local paper that sustains that local market because that's where a lot of income comes from. But its future increasingly is going to be global and national. And, you know, really there are multiple publics that it will increasingly serve. And that's going to be tough. That requires investment.
DOCTORSo that point is a huge one for The Post. And I think it gets exactly to the question of Jeff Bezos and technology. So The Post has had for a long time, since Watergate, at least, a large national audience and global audience that Ken describes. It has not made money off of that audience. If you are the founder of Amazon, which has created the best customer experience on the Internet, in the 20 years of the Internet, the question is, how do you segment that audience?
DOCTORHow do you satisfy an international audience, the national audience? How do you get them to pay you something, and how do you tailor advertising for that specific audience and really audiences all over the world? There are big ideas in Amazon that we all use every day and take for granted. One big idea the news industry has not figured out essentially is Netflix for news or iTunes for news, or how do we take this fire hose of news and bring it into our brains and our homes in an easy way? I think Bezos and technology could be a very interesting story here.
REHMAll right. To Chapel Hill, N.C. Petali, (sp?) you're on the air.
PETALIGood morning. How are you?
REHMFine, thank you.
PETALISo I work at Reese Health News Lab, which is the digital media lab at the UNC School of Journalism at UNC Chapel Hill. And we talk a lot about how we're just tired of talking about the death of print media, as your guests have noted. We all still really value papers like The Washington Post. We just get their content in other ways, through Twitter and that kind of thing.
PETALISo where I work, we talk a lot about how we're going to move forward into the future with technology. I'd love to hear from your guests why they think, you know, we beat this horse again and again of print media is dying, print media is dying.
DALGLISHI could not agree more. You know, I'm in an environment every day at the University of Maryland where I have a building full of young people who just want to go out there and be journalists and hold people accountable. They don't think it terms of newspapers. They think in terms of delivering news and information to the public. And their brains are firing on so many cylinders, just like this young woman, and they're coming up with new and creative ways to deliver the news on a daily basis. And their imaginations are being fired.
DALGLISHYou can't graduate from most good journalism schools these days without taking a course in the business of news. About half of our graduates, I think, in five years are going to be creating their own jobs. And, you know what, they're excited about it. They still want to be a journalist. Journalism has a future, and I wouldn't have taken this job a year ago if I didn't think that there were really cool things going on.
ROSENSTIELAnd, Diane, that -- there's a lot of precedent for that. If you bought a newspaper in the 1920s, you then very quickly saw the advent of radio, and these publishers bought radio stations.
ROSENSTIELAnd then in the 1940s, there was television, and you bought television stations. You saw yourself as a community publisher not tied to a platform. This notion that local publisher was a platform specific thing was a creation in some ways of the federal regulatory laws of the latter part of the 20th century. But there was an enormous amount of innovation in the early part of the 20th century, and these publishers spread far and wide pretty quickly.
REHMKen Auletta, there have been some questions now as to whether The New York Times, itself, might go on the market. What's your thinking?
AULETTAWell, the problem -- the family -- led by Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who is the chairman of the company and the publisher in New York Times -- they don't want to sell. The question is, at some point will they feel they have to sell, which is what the same question the Grahams addressed and ultimately decided that they -- if they wanted to protect the legacy of The Washington Post and bring it into the 21st century and to do the kind of things that Lucy and Tom are talking about and your caller talked about, that they needed deeper pockets than they had.
AULETTAThe problem with the Times financially is for four years now, the family who owns and controls that newspaper, as the Grahams did The Washington Post, has not received a dividend, so receiving zero dollars for their ownership of The Times. At some point, with the family being 80-odd members, do they say, oh, my God, I have to eat? We need to send our kids to school, whatever. And therefore, are they forced to sell?
REHMWhat do you think, Ken Doctor?
DOCTORWell, we've seen almost every other family trust in newspapers, Binghams, the Coles and others, break up, and now we're seeing the Grahams break up. So there is an inevitability here. The Grahams, after all, lasted for 80 years. I think the kinds of pressures that were on and are on today, The Washington Post are very strongly on The New York Times.
DOCTORYes, the Times is a different kind of creature today. It is more global, but the business pressures are the same. Its cash position is a little better. It's not taking usurious loans from Carlos Slim today, but it is not doing really well. And if this is a five-year transition to this next digital point, there is doubt that the times can make it without deeper pockets. And, I think, in the shadows, there is Michael Bloomberg as the -- potentially the next billionaire owner of a daily newspaper.
REHMWhat do you think about that, Ken Auletta?
AULETTAOh, listen, there's no question that a Bloomberg out there looms large. And Arthur Sulzberger and the family may say they don't want to sell, and I believe they don't want to sell. The question is, at some point, will they make a decision as the Grahams did? That they really have to sell if they want to preserve the institution and then they could do what the Grahams did. They could steer the sale to someone who they think will preserve, as the Grahams think Bezos will, the integrity of The New York Times as the world's greatest newspaper.
REHMBut, you know...
AULETTAAnd will they think that Bloomberg is that guy? They might. I don't know.
REHMIt's sort of bothers me that we're coming down to the fact that only millionaires can become members of Congress, and now only billionaires can own newspapers, Lucy.
DALGLISHWell, I think for the size of paper we're talking about today, that may be the case. Elsewhere in communities, I think there are still some opportunities for people to be invested in their community. What bothers me the most about billionaires coming in, they typically are people who have been covered by the news. They may not feel all that warmly toward journalists. But, you know, traditionally, it's these newspaper owners who have fought for open meetings laws, they have fought for open records laws.
DALGLISHThey are very closely tied to the public good. The Grahams, the Sulzbergers, they are the first in line when it comes to working toward shield laws, amendments to the Freedom of Information Act. They really have this public good in mind. And speaking as a traditional media lawyer here, I am concerned that Bezos and some of these other investors who may not share those values the way these families traditionally have, I am concerned about.
ROSENSTIELI would push back on that some, Diane, because I think that the barriers to entry if you want to invent a media enterprise are actually significantly lower than they have ever been. And if somebody wanted to create -- had a concept for a digital platform that published in a community...
DALGLISHOh, I would agree with that.
ROSENSTIEL...you could do that there. And your impulse was probably very much old school, community building, openness, transparency. Petali, at the Results (sic) News Lab at UNC, who called, could be somebody we're talking about as a media mogul in five years, coming out of nowhere the way that, you know, Facebook or anybody else has. So it used to be you needed up many millions to own a newspaper. And that's less the case.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." To St. Louis, Mo. Hi there, Judy.
JUDYHello. Thank you for taking my call.
JUDYI'm going to give applause for Jeff Bezos. I don't know him, but I have been a prime member of Amazon for many years. And I heard him this morning on NPR. It was an old interview, and he was saying that his focus was on customer service. And he does that. He, you know, he made himself a billionaire by taking care of his customers.
JUDYHe spent half an hour -- or one of his specialists spent half an hour on the phone helping me upgrade my Kindle so that a $2 e-book I had bought through the Kindle daily special could be translated to an iPad. You know, who -- he -- no one made any money on that.
REHMOK. And I think that is certainly one way to look at customer service. The other way, of course, is to wonder about how employees at Amazon are paid, how much they work for how many hours they work, how they are compensated. You know, this whole question of how Jeff Bezos has treated his own employees is something I would think, Ken Auletta, might come to the fore.
AULETTAWell, he -- just as we speak now, Amazon is engaged in a major battle in Germany because they are claiming that Amazon is only hiring mostly part-timers in Germany, not full-timers, and trying to keep them out of the union. And the union traditionally is very strong in Germany. So he's going through a major battle there. And so there are issues. I mean, Jeff Bezos, like most tough successful businessman, is a cost cutter. He's a guy who's worried about keeping your cost down.
AULETTANow, he believes in growth, and he believes in not satisfying the whims of Wall Street, which is something that's favorable. There's another point though about the customer, to pick up on Lucy talking about the publishing, which I agree with. And that is that newspapers are inevitably very inefficient and anger a lot of people. If you're worried about the customer, well, look at the poll results. You'll see that newspapers are not very popular today.
AULETTAAnd the truth is that they'll do a lot of investigative stories at The Washington Post that will make them less popular. How will Jeff Bezos respond to that? Well, Jeff Bezos, who likes to measure everything, including -- by the way, he's doing TVs, investing in TV programs at Amazon based in part on customer reaction to first showing of those films. Well, if you look at customer reaction, who is getting the most hits on online newspapers?
AULETTAThey tend to be softer stories, not, say, the kind of investigative stories that made The Washington Post what The Washington Post is. Well, Jeff Bezos, owner of The Washington Post, be sensitive and say, I don't care sometimes what the customer has to say. This is important. That's what the Grahams did.
REHMAll right. All right. And we're going to have to leave it at that, just as many questions as we began with, we end with. Ken Auletta of The New Yorker magazine, Ken Doctor, news industry analyst for Outsell, Lucy Dalglish of the University of Maryland, Tom Rosenstiel of the American Press Institute, thank you all so much.
ROSENSTIELThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks for listening.
REHMI'm Diane Rehm.
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