Why rumors that Jeff Bezos would sell The Washington Post made no sense

Washington Commanders quarterback Carson Wentz. Photo (cc) 2022 by All-Pro Reels.

No sooner had I hit “publish” on Monday’s item about The Washington Post than a rumor started circulating that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was getting ready to sell. The New York Post claimed that Bezos would unload the Post in order to raise money so that he could buy the Washington Commanders.

The rumor made no sense. Bezos, the fourth-richest person in the world, is worth $120.7 billion, according to Forbes, and could presumably buy the Commanders with change he finds in his pants pocket. (The Commanders are valued at $5.6 billion, according to Statista.) Selling the Post would bring in very little — he paid $250 million for it in 2013, and though the paper enjoyed years of profits and meteoric growth, it’s been losing both circulation and money over the past year. Which is to say that he might not be able to get much more for the Post than he paid for it nearly 10 years ago.

As Chloe Melas reports for CNN, spokespersons for both Bezos and the Post denied the rumor immediately. CNN’s Oliver Darcy, in his media newsletter, notes that the N.Y. Post later toned down its headline.

If Bezos ever gets tired of being a newspaper mogul, I hope he’ll donate the Post to a nonprofit organization, as the late Gerry Lenfest did with The Philadelphia Inquirer. But a week after one of Bezos’ rare visits to the Post, there are no signs of that happening.

Should Jeff Bezos have sat in on a news meeting at The Washington Post?

Jeff Bezos. Photo (cc) 2010 by Steve Jurvetson.

Should someone from the business side of a major newspaper — up to and including the owner — sit in on a news meeting? Generally speaking, the answer is no, but I’m not sure that there’s any hard and fast rule. An ethical owner will not interfere in the news coverage in any way. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t listen.

In early 2017, when I was reporting for my book “The Return of the Moguls,” I was allowed to sit in on a Boston Globe news meeting presided over by the paper’s editor, Brian McGrory. I was somewhat surprised to see co-owner Linda Henry, now the CEO, sitting off to one side, taking notes. She said nothing, and it didn’t strike me as inappropriate — just a bit unexpected.

Another owner I was tracking, Jeff Bezos, was a different story. According to everyone I spoke with, Bezos was entirely hands-off with the news operations of The Washington Post, although he was deeply involved in various business and technology initiatives. By all accounts, Amazon’s founder was a model newspaper owner, leaving his journalists alone to cover the news — including Bezos’ own interests — as they saw fit.

So I was surprised to learn in The New York Times (free link) that Bezos had recently sat in on a news meeting at the Post and listened as executive editor Sally Buzbee and her lieutenants discussed several story ideas that no doubt piqued Bezos’ interest. According to the Times’ Benjamin Mullin and Katie Robertson:

Other than Mr. Bezos’ appearance, the news meeting proceeded as it might on any other day, with editors discussing news stories and readership trends, according to the people with knowledge of the meeting. At one point, an editor mentioned plans to run an article about the discontinuation of AmazonSmile, a charity program that Mr. Bezos championed. The editors also discussed the pending sale of the Washington Commanders. The Post previously reported that Mr. Bezos was interested in buying the National Football League team.

Now, you might say that Buzbee’s predecessor, the legendary Marty Baron, never would have allowed such a breach of the wall between the news and the business sides. Well, maybe, maybe not. Because Mullin took to Twitter and reported that he’d heard the same thing had happened at least once during the Baron years. “For what it’s worth: Someone told me this happened in an editorial meeting under Marty Baron, who turned to Jeff and asked him for comment on the spot,” Mullin tweeted. “I’m told Jeff gave a big Jeff laugh and no-commented.”

After years of growth and profits under Bezos, the Post is now losing both circulation and money (another free link; hey, it’s almost the end of the month, when the meter resets). I’ve written before that I think the greatest risk to the Post is that Bezos may be losing interest, so at least his recent meeting suggests that it still engages him. But for someone who seems to have been scrupulous about not interfering in the Post’s news coverage, he ought to be self-aware enough not to sit in on news meetings.

By the way, I should note that though ethical owners and publishers keep their hands off news coverage, that’s not the case on the opinion side. The Post, the Globe and most other large dailies have a strict separation between news and opinion, with the top editors of those operations reporting directly to the publisher. It is entirely ethical for publishers to get involved in the opinion section, and both Linda and John Henry have done that over the years. Bezos, by all accounts, has been as uninvolved in the Post’s opinion operation as he is in news coverage — but that’s his choice. It’s not a requirement.

A final note: In Semafor on Sunday, Ben Smith wrote an item headlined “The Billionaire Era in News Is Fizzling,” building on the Times’ report about Bezos and the Post. Smith lists a bunch of them, from Bezos to Laurene Powell Jobs at The Atlantic and Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong at the Los Angeles Times.

But John Henry, a billionaire financier, is nowhere to be seen — even though in his own take-it-slow way he’s rebuilt the Globe into a growing and presumably profitable (he hasn’t said for several years, but he keeps hiring) enterprise. Sounds to me like bias against what is still seen in many quarters as a provincial outpost.

The New York Times engages in some fanciful pretending about the debt limit

Why won’t Washington do something? Illustration (cc) 2010 via 2di7 & titanio44.

Oh, my goodness, what has The New York Times done now? You know, I could write pieces like this all the time, but it would quickly get boring — for me and for you. Sometimes, though, the Times gives us such a perfect example of willful ignorance (Jay Rosen calls it “the production of innocence”) that it has to be called out.

The headline on the story leading the Times’ homepage right now is “As Debt Limit Threat Looms, Wall Street and Washington Have Only Rough Plans.” I’m posting an image of it just in case an editor lurches into consciousness and changes it, which has been known to happen.

The lead is just as bad:

With days to go before the United States bumps up against a technical limit on how much debt it can issue, Wall Street analysts and political prognosticators are warning that a perennial source of partisan brinkmanship could finally tip into outright catastrophe in 2023.

The headline treats the debt limit as though it were an asteroid hurtling toward earth, without any human agency. The lead has a somewhat different emphasis, pretending that the crisis is the subject of a legitimate debate between Republicans and Democrats. In fact, as we all know, neither is the case. Rather, this is a phony crisis sparked by radical House Republicans (that is to say, all of them, or most of them, anyway) who refuse to cover the country’s debt for goods and services we’ve already paid for.

It is a deeply phony, cynical maneuver that comes up whenever there’s a Democratic president and at least one branch of Congress is under Republican control. The Republicans don’t do this when there’s a Republican president, even though Donald Trump, George W. Bush and their predecessors engaged in a lot more deficit spending than Democratic presidents. Nor do Democrats do this when there’s a Republican president because, whatever the Democrats’ flaws, they are fundamentally a party that governs in good faith.

The central point of the story, written by Jeanna Smialek and Joe Rennison, is that Wall Street and the Treasury Department could do more to defuse the debt bomb that’s about to be detonated. There’s nary a hint, though, that such a disaster would be inconceivable if we had two functioning political parties rather than one normal party — and one that’s run entirely off the rails.

The Globe’s Taunton printing plant will lay off about 30 employees, the BBJ reports

Presses at The Boston Globe’s Taunton printing plant. Photo (cc) 2018 by Dan Kennedy.

About 30 employees will be laid off at The Boston Globe’s printing plant in Taunton following news that the Globe has lost its contract to print the regional edition of The New York Times. The layoffs were reported early this morning by Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal.

The loss of the Times contract was revealed Saturday by Media Nation. But though I had heard there would be layoffs associated with the move, I was unable to pin down the exact number. Seiffert, citing a “source familiar with the ongoing negotiations over those layoffs,” reported there will be about 200 Globe employees left in Taunton.

The Times is now being printed by the Dow Jones plant in Chicopee; Dow Jones is the parent company of The Wall Street Journal.

Seiffert’s story also contains an interesting wrinkle that could, in theory, hasten the demise of the five-year-old, $72 million Taunton plant: a workforce of 200 is only a third of what the Globe promised when it obtained a tax break from that city in order to bring much-needed jobs into that area.

At one point the Taunton facility printed not just the Globe but also the Times, USA Today and the Boston Herald. Seiffert’s source told him that the printing plant has “‘totally abandoned any revenue streams related to other commercial print or direct-mail work’ and is now printing only the Boston Globe.”

The Globe’s paid digital circulation of about 230,000 now outpaces print by a considerable margin. According to the most recent figures from the Alliance for Audited Media, the Globe’s average weekday print circulation is now about 64,000, and about 112,000 on Sundays.

If Taunton is no longer getting any outside work, it raises the prospect that the Globe’s owners, John and Linda Henry, may close the plant at some point and job out the Globe’s print run — perhaps to a combination of Chicopee, CNHI’s Eagle-Tribune plant in North Andover (which has handled some of the Globe’s production work in the past) and/or Gannett’s Providence Journal.

Correction: An earlier version of this post said that The Eagle-Tribune had an arrangement to handle part of the Globe’s print run in the past. That was incorrect.

The Globe loses its contract to print The New York Times

Sign outside the Globe’s printing plant in Taunton. Photo (cc) 2018 by Dan Kennedy.

The Boston Globe has lost its contract to print the regional edition of The New York Times at its Taunton facility. The Times will instead now be printed at the Dow Jones plant in Chicopee. Dow Jones is the parent company of The Wall Street Journal.

When the Globe’s Taunton printing plant opened in 2017, the hope was that it could turn a profit for the paper by taking on outside clients. The facility got off to a rough start, though, with publisher-owner John Henry writing a front-page note to subscribers admitting that the presses “are operating too slowly and breaking too often.” He added: “We are embarrassed. We are sincerely sorry to all those affected.” In my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls,” I described the launch of the Taunton plant as a “disaster.”

At one point, the Globe printed the Times, the Boston Herald and USA Today. The Herald decamped for The Providence Journal some time ago. When I asked Globe spokeswoman Heidi Flood whether the Taunton facility currently has any outside work, she answered only that “we are always exploring ways to bring more work into the plant.” She did say that Taunton now handles the entire Globe print run. At one time the Globe was jobbing some of its run out to The Eagle-Tribune in North Andover; I’m not sure when that stopped.

I’ve heard that the Taunton plant has laid some employees off as well, but Flood did not address that when I asked her about it by email. The full text of her statement follows.

I can confirm that the Times decided not to renew their printing contract with the Globe. We worked very hard over many months to keep their business in a way that also worked for ours, but were not able to arrive at a financially sustainable agreement. While the pending NYT departure is disappointing, from a business perspective it’s the right decision and positions us more favorably for the future.

The Times’s decision to print elsewhere will not affect our Globe print operations. Taunton currently handles the entire Globe print run and we are always exploring ways to bring more work into the plant. First and foremost, the Globe remains committed to meeting the needs of our valuable print subscribers.

The Globe will launch a grant-supported project covering ‘the racial wealth gap’

I don’t believe this has been reported anywhere, though it has been posted on a few job sites. The Boston Globe is hiring an editor-in-chief for a grant-supported project called Closing the Gap, which will “explore the racial wealth gap in Boston and beyond.” That person, in turn, will hire a deputy editor and several reporters. The listing also specifies that that the Globe “will maintain complete editorial control over story selection, reporting, and editing.”

COVID, the elderly and the rising death rate: What the media still haven’t reported

The bad old days. Middlesex Fells, July 2020.

Last month I criticized an opinion piece by David Wallace-Wells in The New York Times for failing to pull together two lines of statistics about the elderly and COVID-19. Yes, the death rate among those 80 and older remains very high, but we don’t have a clear sense of how many of those who died had received the bivalent booster, the best protection available against serious illness and death.

Today we run into a similar problem in The Boston Globe, although at least reporter Felice J. Freyer doesn’t make any opinionated assertions for which she lacks data. Freyer reports that the COVID death rate in Massachusetts is jumping up again. In a chart that accompanies her story, we learn that the latest death rate is now 62.14 per 100,000 cases. Of the 129 deaths, 76.8% were 80 and older, and 15.9% were between 70 and 79. The rate among those 29 and younger was zero.

We also learn from Freyer’s reporting that 59% of Massachusetts residents 65 and older have received the bivalent booster, a much higher proportion than the 38% who’ve received it in the country as a whole. That is to our credit.

But here’s where the twain never meets. What we would really like to know, more than anything, is how many of those elderly people in Massachusetts who are dying of COVID are also among the 41% who didn’t receive the bivalent booster. We can be reasonably sure that the death rate among the unboosted elderly is higher than it is for those who’ve been boosted. But how much higher? Does anyone know?

There’s nothing new about the media’s failure to expose George Santos

Peter Blute back in the day. Photo via Wikipedia.

I doubt anyone is reading today, but here I am. I want to share an anecdote that I think sheds some further light on the media’s failure to expose serial liar George Santos before he was elected to Congress. My point is not to make excuses for the press — quite the opposite.

Way back in 1996, a somewhat obscure aide to Democratic congressman Joe Moakley named Jim McGovern stunned political observers by beating Republican congressman Peter Blute in the Central Massachusetts district that Blute had represented for two terms. Blute was scandal-free (at that time, anyway) and was not thought to be in any trouble. Polling in congressional districts, then as now, tends to range from poor to non-existent. Because of those factors, the race got virtually no coverage.

After McGovern won, I learned that political reporters were upset — not with themselves, but with Blute’s political consultant, Charley Manning, for not warning them that Blute might be in trouble. Yes, you read that correctly. Members of the press — some of them, anyway — thought it was Manning’s job to let them know that Blute wasn’t a shoo-in and that maybe they ought to pay some attention before Election Day.

Now, this isn’t entirely outrageous. Even 26 years ago, the media had limited resources, and there was a huge battle that year between Democratic Sen. John Kerry, who faced a strong challenge for re-election from Republican Gov. Bill Weld. It was a presidential year. And reporters (including me) were also busy covering the rematch between North Shore congressman Peter Torkildsen and attorney John Tierney; Torkildsen, a Republican, had nearly lost to Democrat Tierney two years earlier. (Kerry and Tierney both won in 1996, leaving Massachusetts with an all-Democratic congressional delegation, which has been unbroken to this day except for the brief Scott Brown interregnum.) Still, the idea of blaming Blute’s political consultant for their own inattention seemed then and now as fairly ridiculous.

So it strikes me that a large part of what went wrong in that Long Island House district was that the media made assumptions — always a bad idea, but nevertheless not at all unusual. Santos, a Republican, had lost in 2020 by a dozen points (albeit to an incumbent in a good year for Democrats). He seemed like a nonentity. The Democratic nominee in 2022, Robert Zimmerman, reportedly hadn’t turned up much beyond “Santos is a MAGA Trumper blah blah blah.” The New York media were obsessed with the possibility of a Red Wave and whether Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul might be able to hang on. Inexcusably, everyone ignored pre-election reporting by the weekly North Shore Leader, which was able to publish some key details about Santos’ lies. And there matters stood until Dec. 19, when The New York Times published the first in a series of stories exposing Santos as an utter fraud.

So unless someone proves that Santos isn’t a U.S. citizen (a possibility), he’ll be sworn in on Jan. 3, casting a crucial vote to make Kevin McCarthy speaker. All because the media was depending on others to do their job for them.

Earlier:

A WashPost story sheds new light on big media’s failure to expose George Santos

Sarah Ellison of The Washington Post (free link) has a terrific story on The North Shore Leader, the Long Island weekly that broke parts of the George Santos story several weeks before the election only to be ignored by larger media outlets. I want to focus on this astonishing section:

Despite a well-heeled and well-connected readership — the Leader’s publisher says it counts among its subscribers Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Jesse Watters and several senior people at Newsday, a once-mighty Long Island-based tabloid that has won 19 Pulitzers — no one followed its story before Election Day.

For obvious reasons, we can set Fox News aside. But one of the big questions all along has been why Newsday didn’t follow up. Now we know, at least according to the Leader, that “several senior people at Newsday” are among its readers. Assuming they saw the Leader’s coverage, which included a hard-hitting news story as well as a withering editorial endorsing Santos’ Democratic opponent, then there is no excuse for Newsday’s failure to dive in. Not to let The New York Times off the hook, either — though it is primarily a national and international newspaper, it does purport to cover the New York metro area. Yes, it’s the Times that finally exposed Santos as the fraud that he is, but it’s a little late.

I’ve seen a number of observers try to fit this square peg into the round hole of the ongoing local news crisis. Frankly, this strikes me as having more to do with journalistic sloth and arrogance, which have always been with us.

Finally, I talked with the USA Today podcast “Five Things” about the media and political breakdown that led to Santos’ winning a congressional seat without anyone other than the Leader holding him up to any scrutiny. You can listen here.

Earlier:

William Loeb revelations and Gannett’s ongoing implosion lead my top 10 list for 2022

William Loeb in 1974. Photo via the Spencer Grant Collection / Boston Public Library.

I thought the final days of 2022 would be a good time to take stock of the state of Media Nation. I’ve put more of an effort into it since giving up my weekly column at GBH News last spring. Even though I stopped writing for GBH so that I could concentrate on writing the book that Ellen Clegg and I are co-authoring on local news, I’ve also tried to put more of an effort into the blog. It seems to have paid off.

According to the data, Media Nation received more page views in 2022 (243,489) than it had since 2014 (258,982). More visitors (160,548) dropped by than in any year for which I have data — the numbers only go back to 2013, and I’ve been blogging independently since 2005. I also published 329 posts in 2022, which is more than any year except 2021, when I published 530. I really don’t know what that was all about; it seems to me that I’ve been blogging more this year than last.

As you may know, this is the age of newsletters, and blogs are considered passé in many circles. So I’m pleased that 2,156 people have signed up for free email delivery of new posts to Media Nation, which makes this place a newsletter as much as it is a blog. I also have a small but hardy band of members who pay $5 a month to keep the blog going. If you’d like to join them, you can sign up here.

What follows are my top 10 posts for 2022. The most trafficked post was about revelations that the late William Loeb, the notorious right-wing publisher of the Manchester Union Leader, was a child molester. Five of the top 10 pertain to the Gannett newspaper chain, which went on a downsizing crusade in 2022 that made its previous efforts look almost benevolent. And away we go.

1. William Loeb’s stepdaughter says the toxic publisher was also a child molester, May 1 (8,820 views). Who would have thought that Loeb’s deservedly ugly reputation for racism, antisemitism and all-around hate-mongering could get any worse? Well, it did — so much so that his old paper, since rechristened the New Hampshire Union Leader, removed his name from the masthead.

2. Gannett goes on a massive spree of merging and closing papers weekly newspapers, March 17 (7,634 views). This will go down as the year when Gannett more or less got out of the weekly newspaper business in Massachusetts. The chain also made deep cuts at its 200 dailies, including its flagship, USA Today. But the weeklies, in particular, have been targeted for elimination.

3. While Gannett journalists brace for layoffs, those at the top rake in big bucks, Aug. 8. (6,273 views). Chair and CEO Michael Reed’s compensation has been an issue for years, but it seemed especially relevant at a time when his underpaid journalists were losing their jobs by the hundreds. According to company documents, Reed was paid more than $7.7 million in salary and other benefits in 2021. Compensation for other executives and for part-time board members was eye-popping as well. Who says the newspaper business doesn’t pay?

4. Gannett’s Mass. weeklies to replace much of their local news with regional coverage, Feb. 16. (5,120 views). To my mind, this was worse than shutting down and merging many of the weeklies. With the exception of just three papers (the Cambridge Chronicle, the Old Colony Memorial of Plymouth and the Provincetown Banner), Gannett eliminated virtually all local coverage, replacing it with regional beats such as climate change, the criminal justice system and food. Those are not unworthy topics, but who’s going to keep an eye on town hall? Fortunately, the year was also defined by the rise of new local news outlets in Marblehead, Concord, Newton and elsewhere — a trend I expect will continue in 2023.

5. Gannett lays off journalists, closes papers and keeps the numbers to itself, Aug. 15 (4,932 views). Yet another round of cuts by the chain, beleaguered by debt and greed in the executive suites.

6. “A Civil Action”: The real story, Dec. 18, 1998 (4,738 views). Now this one is a real mystery. I wrote the piece for The Boston Phoenix just before the movie version premiered, reporting on what actually happened to the Woburn families who sued three industrial polluters after their children became sick with leukemia; two of the children died. Since Northeastern University now owns the rights to the Phoenix archives, I posted it on Media Nation in 2015 in order to make it more accessible. But I have no idea why it got so many views in 2022. All I can think of is that someone assigned it for a course.

7. A terrible day for Gannett, to be followed by terrible days for its staff and communities, Aug. 5 (4,662 views). In which the company announced that it had lost $54 million during the second quarter on revenues of $749 million, thus leading to the cuts I wrote about 10 days later.

8. A Long Island weekly had the goods on Santos several weeks before Election Day, Dec. 23 (4,152 views). This one is still resonating and may move up in the rankings before the year draws to a close. Following up on reporting by Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo, I found that The North Shore Leader had exposed some of the details about serial liar George Santos several weeks before Election Day — raising questions about why larger news organizations such as The New York Times and Newsday didn’t take notice.

9. The ugly truth about Eric Clapton — and the line between the art and the artist, Oct. 18, 2021 (3,255 views). The great guitarist came out as an anti-vaxxer, raising questions about why we didn’t understand that he was a jerk (and a racist) all along. This was also 12th on my most-viewed list for 2021.

10. Bob Garfield revisits his firing from ‘On the Media’ and brings his podcast to a close, June 21 (2,484 views). The public radio program “On the Media” has been one of my must-listens for many years, although I’m not happy that the program is less and less about the media. (There have been some recent signs of a return to form.) The chemistry between co-hosts Garfield and Brooke Gladstone was one of the things that made it special, even though we now know they hated each other’s guts. Garfield was fired in 2021 and accused of abusive behavior in the workplace, an accusation he more or less admitted to but defended anyway. And by the way, my post on Gladstone’s taking to the airwaves to say that Garfield got what he deserved was my most viewed (9,172 times) of 2021. The break-up of Gladstone and Garfield’s professional partnership obviously meant a lot to many people.