Can Jeff Bezos’s Cash Restore Morale at the Post?
After offering five buyouts in ten years and losing key names to other papers, the Post staff was deflated in every sense.
Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron doesn’t do giddy. He’s a measured man, level of gaze and demeanor. But he sounds almost gleeful about his paper’s prospects. “For the first time in 14 years as the top editor of a newspaper, I will not be doing any budget cuts,” says Baron, who oversaw downsizing at the Miami Herald and the Boston Globe before coming to the Post in January of last year. “It’s great,” he says. “I’m encouraged. I’m optimistic.”
When Jeff Bezos bought the Post in October for $250 million, the media world wondered if he had a plan to revive the paper. Having shed readers, revenues, and reporters for a decade, the Post seemed to have slipped below critical mass on all three. The question boiled down to this: Would Bezos open his wallet? The answer now seems to be yes. “We are hiring like crazy,” says writer and editor Marc Fisher. “It’s been an enormous morale boost.”
The talent drain hasn’t ended. The New York Times continues to treat the paper like a farm team—Nikita Stewart, who anchored coverage of corruption in DC mayor Vince Gray’s 2010 campaign; economics writer Neil Irwin; and politics scribe Jason Horowitz have all defected in the past six months alone. In January, Bloomberg News lured away federal-court reporter Del Quentin Wilber.
But the Post is doing its own poaching. Even as those stars departed, it recruited Adam Goldman, who won a Pulitzer with the Associated Press in 2012 for investigating the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslims; Robert Costa and his deep GOP connections from National Review; and Ben Terris from National Journal, replacing Horowitz. Last month, Wesley Lowery, a 23-year-old wunderkind from the Globe, came onboard to cover Congress.
Baron adds that Post watchers should stay tuned: “The hiring you see is just the beginning.”
Bezos is also footing a redesign of the website, where visitors fell to 24.8 million in December (compared with the Times’ 50 million) and which recently lost Ezra Klein, founder of the paper’s popular Wonkblog, when he departed to start a digital publication with Vox Media. Klein has lured away a handful of prolific writers who gave Wonkblog its zip.
Media chatter skewered Bezos and Post leadership for not surrendering the eight-figure start-up cost to keep Klein’s proposed new site under the Post umbrella. But those who know him say Bezos is a methodical investor, not a reactive one. “He’s patient,” says publisher Katharine Weymouth (who notes that the decision to let Klein go was hers). “He has a long-term view.”
It’s true that Bezos has built Amazon in part by plowing revenues back into fledgling programs. It remains to be seen how long his patience will last in the face of operating losses that came in at $49.3 million for the first six months of 2013. It’s worth asking, too, whether money alone will be enough to turn the Post around. But for now, happy reporters and editors are a step in the right direction.
This article appears in the March 2014 issue of Washingtonian.