In a stunning announcement, the Washington Post said Monday that it has been sold for $250 million to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
Publisher Katharine Weymouth made the announcement at a hastily called meeting of the paper's staff on Monday. She will stay on as publisher, and editor Martin Baron will also retain his job.
The purchase is a personal one for Bezos, who is worth $23.2 billion. Amazon is not involved. The Washington Post Company's other media properties, such as Slate and The Root, are not being sold.
Bezos also bought the Post co.'s other newspaper titles, including the Express newspaper, The Gazette Newspapers, Southern Maryland Newspapers, Fairfax County Times, El Tiempo Latino and Greater Washington Publishing.
Post Co. CEO Donald Graham, whose family has owned the Post for generations, said in a statement that the economics of the print industry had led to the decision. The company's newspaper division has been facing tremendous struggles in recent years; in the first quarter of 2013, it lost $49.3 million.
Even so, the Post is not just another newspaper, and the Grahams are not ordinary owners. Along with the Sulzberger family of the New York Times, they were one of the last remaining links to a time when most papers were run by families, not huge corporations, and their defense of the Post during the Watergate years is still seen as a high-water mark of American journalism. Their decision to sell is undoubtedly historic—the "end of an era" if ever there was one.
"I, along with Katharine Weymouth and our board of directors, decided to sell only after years of familiar newspaper-industry challenges made us wonder if there might be another owner who would be better for the Post," Graham said.
In a letter to staffers, he elaborated on the move, saying that it was borne out of his family's long-standing desire to protect the paper:
The point of our ownership has always been that it was supposed to be good for the Post. As the newspaper business continued to bring up questions to which we have no answers, Katharine and I began to ask ourselves if our small public company was still the best home for the newspaper. Our revenues had declined seven years in a row. We had innovated and to my critical eye our innovations had been quite successful in audience and in quality, but they hadn’t made up for the revenue decline. Our answer had to be cost cuts and we knew there was a limit to that. We were certain the paper would survive under our ownership, but we wanted it to do more than that. We wanted it to succeed.
"This is a day that my family and I never expected to come," Weymouth said in a letter to employees. "The Washington Post Company is selling the newspaper it has owned and nurtured for eight decades."
Weymouth told the Post's Paul Farhi she and Graham had decided to sell the paper late last year:
“We talked about whether [the Washington Post Co.] was the right place to house The Post," she said. “If journalism is the mission, given the pressures to cut costs and make profits, maybe [a publicly traded company] is not the best place for The Post.”
Farhi said that Donald Graham had hired the investment firm Allen & Co. to help with the transaction.
"Allen’s representatives spoke with a half-dozen potential suitors before the Post Co.’s board settled on Bezos, 49, a legendary tech innovator who has never operated a newspaper," he wrote.
Bezos assured Farhi that "the values of the Post do not need changing," though he promised "experimentation" in the future. He did not say whether he would be making any future job cuts, or whether he would tamper with the paper's impending paywall, though Farhi said no layoffs were currently planned.
In a note to Post employees, Bezos reeled off a broad list of potential coverage areas:
Our touchstone will be readers, understanding what they care about – government, local leaders, restaurant openings, scout troops, businesses, charities, governors, sports – and working backwards from there. I’m excited and optimistic about the opportunity for invention.
Bezos's purchase continues a trend of newspapers falling into the hands of a single wealthy owner. The news of the Post sale came just days after Boston Red Sox owner John Henry bought the Boston Globe from the New York Times Company.
The sale also raises questions about how the Post will cover Amazon, a highly important and oft-controversial company, going forward.
Given the overall declining nature of print media, did you see this coming? Do you expect any changes to how the paper operates? A decline in quality, perhaps? Any thoughts on the nature of Amazon's business?
Print is on the decline. What kind of ROI is Bezos expecting to get out of this investment? He must know something we don't. If you break the paper down into assets, what is there of significant value long-term outside of the name? I wouldn't imagine they do things particularly different than any other paper be it reporting, printing, or otherwise that brings about some kind of advantage in the market. Very mysterious. He's got something up his sleeve, but I don't know what.