When I interviewed Marty Baron in March 2016, his office at The Washington Post’s new headquarters was smaller than I had expected. We sat at a conference table next to a human-sized cardboard cutout of an Oscar statuette, which he said was waiting for him after he returned from the Academy Awards gala in Hollywood.
I was struck by how little new information there was in this New York Times overview of Marty Baron’s years as executive editor of The Washington Post. As described by Times reporter Marc Tracy, the Post succeeded under Baron and owner Jeff Bezos by switching its focus from regional to national, and from print to digital.
There’s more to it than just that, of course, and Tracy’s piece is worthwhile if you’re not familiar with the subject. The ground that Tracy covers is laid out in my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls.” The Bezos-Baron template was set early on. In recent years, the Post has continued to grow (its digital subscriber base now exceeds 3 million, and more than 1,000 journalists work in the newsroom), but that’s simply a continuation of earlier trends.
Likewise, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has been touting a comment Baron made to CNN’s Brian Stelter about what he learned from Bezos: “One thing that Jeff emphasized at the beginning is that we really should be paying attention to our customer more than our competitors.” As Rosen says, “Sounds simple, like banal business advice. It’s not.”
Marty Baron was asked by @brianstelter what Bezos as owner imprinted on the Post.
"One thing that Jeff emphasized at the beginning is that we really should be paying attention to our customer more than our competitors."
Sounds simple, like banal business advice. It's not.
In 2016 I asked Baron about the Post’s competition with the Times, and he answered the question in a manner similar to what he told Stelter. I compressed Baron’s answer in my book, but here’s a fuller quote:
Well, we don’t obsess about The New York Times in that sense. We don’t see that as our only competition. We see other people as our competition and, frankly, we see all calls on people’s time and in terms of getting news and information as being a competition for us, not to mention all the other competition for people’s time.
One aspect of the Bezos-Baron era that Tracy leaves out is the role of technology in the Post’s revival. Under chief technologist Shailesh Prakash (like Baron, a holdover from the Graham era), the Post developed state-of-the-art digital products that are fast and a pleasure to use — better than the Times’ very good products, quite frankly.
Overall, the Bezos-Baron partnership has been good for the Post, good for journalism and good for the public. I hope the next editor can build on Baron’s legacy.
The Nieman Journalism Lab’s Sarah Scire last week spoke with The New York Times’ recently named opinion editor, Kathleen Kingsbury. It’s an interesting conversation that defies easy summary, but I was struck that Kingsbury now says she and the Times “ended up confusing people” when they endorsed two presidential candidates, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, in last year’s Democratic primaries.
More than anything, I think Kingsbury represents steady leadership after the tumultuous James Bennet era, often caricatured as coming to an abrupt end over the infamous op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton but that was in fact — as Scire points out — punctuated by numerous lapses in judgment. Kingsbury demonstrated that steadiness last week when she killed a piece by columnist Bret Stephens. If the commentary, an n-word-filled defense of Don McNeil, had run, critics would be wondering if Kingsbury were up to the position. (Stephens’ point, such as it was, is that it ought to be considered acceptable to quote others using the n-word as long as there was no racist intent.)
I was also interested to see that Kingsbury and publisher A.G. Sulzberger “tend to talk daily.” The rule of thumb for good publishers is that they should stay out of the newsroom but that involvement in the opinion section is appropriate. John and Linda Henry are certainly involved in The Boston Globe’s opinion operation. On the other hand, Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos is known to be as hands-off with opinion as he is with news coverage. Sulzberger is entitled to have his say, but maybe he ought to back off and let Kingsbury do her job.
I had a long interview with Kingsbury several years ago, when she was the Globe’s managing editor for digital. She struck me then as capable and creative. The Times’ gain was definitely the Globe’s loss.
Correction: Kingsbury objected to my original characterization that she had said the Times made a mistake by not endorsing just one of the Democratic candidates. “I still believe choosing the two candidates was the right thing to do,” she says. I’ve updated this post to reflect that.
@dankennedy_nu That is not what I said. I said the choice of two candidates confused people, not that we should have endorsed one. Which is pretty obvious — given that we traditionally endorse one.
Isaac Chotiner of The New Yorker has a terrific interview with Marty Baron, who’s retiring as executive editor of The Washington Post. I’m amused at the way Baron treats The New Yorker with the same brusqueness as he does other media outlets. For instance:
Chotiner: Why do you think [Jeff] Bezos decided to buy the Post?
Baron: You can look at what he’s said about that. I assume that you have. He’s talked about it many times.
Baron also expresses the view that local newspapers are going to have to save themselves the same way that national papers did: by persuading their readers to pay for it.
I was struck by how similar much of what Baron said was to my 2016 interview with him for “The Return of the Moguls.” Baron has his lodestar, and he follows it. But how journalists should and shouldn’t use social media is a bigger issue today than it was in 2016, so he and Chotiner talk about that quite a bit. And Baron also defines objectivity in exactly the way that I try to get it across to my students:
I do think that people have been routinely mischaracterizing what objectivity means. It really dates back a hundred years. Walter Lippmann essentially was the originator of the idea. What was the idea? It was a recognition that all of us as journalists, all of us as human beings, have preconceptions. Those preconceptions arrived from our own backgrounds, our life experiences, the people we associate with, you name it. And it’s important as we go about our reporting that we try to set those preconceptions aside — and almost approach our work in as scientific a way as possible — and to be open-minded, to be honest, to be fair, to listen generously to people, to hear what they have to say, to take it seriously into account, to do a thorough job of reporting, to do a rigorous job of reporting.
The idea of objectivity — I should make clear — it’s not neutrality, it’s not both-sides-ism, it’s not so-called balance. It’s never been that. That’s not the idea of objectivity. But once we do our reporting, once we do a rigorous job and we’re satisfied that we’ve done the job in an appropriate way, we’re supposed to tell people what we’ve actually found. Not pretend that we didn’t learn anything definitive. Not meet all sides equally if we know that they’re not equal. It’s none of that. It’s to tell people in an unflinching way what we have learned, what we have discovered.
Not unexpected, but stunning nevertheless: Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron is retiring after eight years at the helm, according to Brian Stelter of CNN. Baron was widely regarded as the best newspaper editor of his generation, and his leadership — not just at the Post but as a voice for journalism and the First Amendment — will be hugely missed.
Under Baron, the Post was fearless, negotiating the bizarre media landscape dominated by Donald Trump with a sure-footedness that its larger competitor, The New York Times, never quite seemed to master. Before coming to the Post, Baron was the editor of The Boston Globe, where he led the paper’s reporting that showed Cardinal Bernard Law was deeply involved in the pedophile-priest crisis.
“I was completely shocked, obviously,” Baron said when I asked him about his reaction to the news that Bezos would buy the Post. “I told people when I came here that while the Times would probably like to sell the Globe, it was highly unlikely that Don Graham would be selling the Washington Post. So I was kind of stunned when I heard about it. But I thought that it could have some real advantages for us”—a reference to Bezos’s preference for growth over cutting and his deep understanding of technology and consumer behavior. “I did not know if it would be a good thing for me personally,” Baron added, “because obviously when a new owner comes in he has the absolute right to pick who he wants to run the organization that he has acquired. He said positive things at the beginning, but my sense was that it would be a year of figuring out the place and deciding what he wanted to do.”
Bezos, to his credit, realized what he had inherited, kept Baron in place and by all accounts left him alone to do his job. The Post has built its paid digital subscription base from around 100,000 to 200,000 in early 2016 to 3 million today, and the newsroom has grown from 580 to more than 1,000 since Bezos bought the paper. It’s also been profitable for five years.
And the Post’s main selling point has been the excellence of its journalism. Baron is going to be incredibly difficult to replace.
Surprising though the news may have been, there was a certain inevitability to Linda Pizzuti Henry’s being named chief executive officer of The Boston Globe’s parent company.
She had long held the title of managing director, and it has become increasingly clear over the past few years that she and her husband, publisher John Henry, were determined to impose their will on the media properties they own. Indeed, the Henrys have been calling pretty much all the shots on the business side since the summer, when Vinay Mehra exited as president and was not replaced.
These are the best and worst of times for media organizations. The COVID-19 epidemic and the presidential campaign have resulted in renewed interest in the news as well as growing audiences. But advertising, already in long-term decline, has fallen off a cliff.
Yet the paper, reportedly profitable before the pandemic, has been forced to trim its budget to adjust to the pandemic economy, cutting back on its use of freelancers and paid interns, for example, as well as implementing some business-side reductions.
Time will tell what the Linda Henry era will bring. But here are three thoughts that I think are worth keeping in mind:
• There is no longer any middleman. With co-owners John and Linda Henry holding the top two positions, all the heat will now be directed their way, for better or worse. When Mehra was in charge — and, before him, Doug Franklin and Mike Sheehan — both credit and blame could be deflected.
Now the Globe is the Henrys’ paper in every respect. That extends into the editorial operations as well given that editor Brian McGrory was actually involved in recruiting John Henry to buy the paper and that editorial-page editor Bina Venkataraman was hired by the Henrys.
For a useful contrast, consider The Washington Post. Although owner Jeff Bezos does involve himself in business strategy to a degree, he hired a publisher, Fred Ryan, to run the paper on a day-to-day basis, and left the executive editor (Marty Baron), the editorial-page editor (Fred Hiatt) and the top technology executive (Shailesh Prakash) in place after he acquired the paper.
• The Henrys must now settle an ugly labor dispute on their own. Earlier today the Boston Newspaper Guild, involved for quite some time in acrimonious contract talks with management, issued a statement ripping the Henrys for using the law firm of Jones Day, which critics say has a reputation for union-busting.
That’s not new. What is new is that Jones Day has been involved in representing Republicans in their attempt to overturn the results of the presidential election. “How can the Globe’s political journalists be asked to continue to endure such workplace attacks from the very law firm whose actions they are now reporting on and investigating?,” the union’s letter asks.
• The Globe is not for sale. From time to time, rumors have circulated within the newsroom and in the larger community that the Henrys are looking to get out. This happened most recently last fall, when Linda Henry presided over a town hall-style meeting on Zoom at which she was asked about a replacement for Mehra.
When I asked her about it, she replied via email, “The Globe is not for sale, I’m pretty sure you would have picked up on if it was.” After that, the rumors appeared to fade away. Now, by occupying the top two operational roles at the Globe, the Henrys, seven years into their ownership, clearly seem to be sending a signal that they’re in it for the long term.
Comments are open. Please include your full name, first and last, and speak with a civil tongue.
I don’t listen to a huge number of audiobooks. But when I do, I buy them through Libro.fm, which lets you designate an independent bookstore to receive some of the proceeds. The bookstore I’ve chosen is An Unlikely Story Bookstore & Café in Plainville, founded by children’s book author Jeff Kinney and his wife, Julie Kinney. If you’ve never been, you’re in for a treat.
A few months ago, though, the audiobook I wanted to buy was an “Audible Exclusive,” meaning I couldn’t buy it through Libro. Audible, as you may know, is part of Amazon. So instead of helping to support a great independent bookstore, I put a few more dollars in Jeff Bezos’ bulging pockets.
Today An Unlikely Story sent me an email from Libro that goes into a bit more detail on the harm being caused by “Audible Exclusives.” Here’s an excerpt:
Libraries, bookstores, schools, and anyone who isn’t affiliated with Amazon cannot distribute audiobooks that are Audible Exclusives. This means Libro.fm can’t sell Audible Exclusive audiobooks, which means our 1,200 bookstore partners can’t sell them, either.
Audible Exclusives also work in direct opposition to the basic principles of libraries — free access to books, both digital and print. By limiting distribution, Amazon aids in making books, perspectives, and information inaccessible to certain communities and users.
This is predatory capitalism, which is, as we know, Amazon’s specialty. I will continue to buy audiobooks through Libro whenever possible. Meanwhile, think of this as yet another reason to keep pushing for antitrust action against Amazon and its fellow tech giants.
As newspapers have moved away from making their content freely available online, a lot of thinking that seemed forward-looking a few years ago needs to be re-examined. Near the top of the list is the future of the newspaper bundle — that combination of local, national and international news, sports, comics, the crossword puzzle, the school lunch menu and myriad other features that traditionally comprised a daily newspaper.
In the early years of online news, when it seemed reasonable to imagine that digital advertising could subsidize free journalism, the bundle was often described as a relic of the industrial age. Disparate content was brought together, according to this line of reasoning, not because it belonged in one place but because printing was a high-cost manufacturing enterprise. It was logical for the local newspaper to be a one-stop destination for all kinds of material. But with print receding into the past, readers could skip from a hyperlocal website for community news, to a dedicated sports site, to yet another site for comics and puzzles,
“The web wrecks horizontal integration,” wrote C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky in their influential 2012 report “Post-Industrial Journalism.” “Prior to the web, having a dozen good-but-not-great stories in one bundle used to be enough to keep someone from hunting for the dozen best stories in a dozen different publications. In a world of links and feeds, however, it is often easier to find the next thing you read, watch or listen to from your friends than it is to stick with any given publication.”
But at a time when readers are once again being asked to pay for newspaper journalism, some sort of bundling is necessary. The days of regularly surfing among multiple free websites are drawing to a close. For any one newspaper to stand out as something to which readers will be willing to buy a subscription, it almost certainly has to offer a wide variety of content.
From the newspaper business’ point of view, the ideal reader would buy digital subscriptions to national, regional and local newspapers. But that’s asking a lot. The reality is that most people aren’t going to subscribe to any newspaper, and those who do are likely to choose one, maybe two. Which means that the newspaper needs to be all things to most people in a way that we thought was obsolete just a few years ago.
In early 2016 I interviewed Bill Marimow, the editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, days after its billionaire owner, Gerry Lenfest, had donated the Inquirer and its related media properties to a nonprofit organization. (The Philadelphia story comprises a section in my 2018 book “The Return of the Moguls.”) The Inquirer was just getting ready to start charging for digital subscriptions. And I was struck by what Marimow told me he thought needed to be part of the daily mix.
“If you look at today’s paper,” he said, “you’ll see stories that represent the best of city news, Philadelphia suburbs, South Jersey, national and foreign.” I expressed some surprise at Marimow’s insistence on national and international news since the Inquirer relied almost exclusively on wire services for anything outside the Philadelphia area. His answer was that 90% of his readers did not read a national paper and thus relied on the Inquirer.
You see this at The Boston Globe, too. Before the internet began to take a toll on the newspaper business in the 1990s, the Globe — and many other large regional newspapers, including the Inquirer — had a number of U.S. and international bureaus. With the exception of a Washington bureau, those are all gone now. But the Globe continues to publish quite a bit of national and international news from wire services, both in print and online.
Ten years ago, that would have been described as old-media thinking. Now, with the Globe charging $30 a month for digital subscriptions, it makes a great deal of sense to position the paper as a single stop for most of its customers. After all, if the Globe forced its best readers to subscribe to The New York Times, The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal in order to get news from beyond the Boston area, there’s a real danger that they would decide to drop the Globe.
When Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post in 2013, he announced that he wanted to reinvigorate the traditional newspaper bundle. “People will buy a package,” Bezos said. “They will not pay for a story.” Bezos’ attitude seemed archaic for someone who had made his reputation as a tech visionary. One of the Post’s younger journalists, Timothy B. Lee, went so far as to disagree with his new boss in a piece headlined “Sorry, Jeff Bezos, the news bundle isn’t coming back.”
“Trying to recreate the ‘bundle’ experience in Web or tablet form means working against the grain of how readers, especially younger readers, consume the news today,” Lee wrote. “In the long run, it’s a recipe for an aging readership and slow growth.”
It turned out that Bezos was right and Lee was wrong — not because Lee was mistaken about how the web had changed news habits, but because paywalls were going up everywhere, thus forcing a change in those habits whether readers liked it or not. Under Bezos’ ownership, the Post’s digital bundle has led to profits and growth, re-establishing the paper as a serious competitor to the Times.
With Google and Facebook capturing the vast majority of digital advertising in recent years, paid content has become the last stand. It may not work for more than a handful of mostly national titles. But, if nothing else, paywalls have given new life to the idea of the bundle that has traditionally defined the general-interest newspaper.
Jeff Bezos is our most elusive famous billionaire. With his shaved head and gnomish smile, it sometimes seems like he’s perpetually in our midst. Yet unlike Mark Zuckerberg, who’s forever explaining himself and his intentions, or the late Steve Jobs, always ready with a boast or a putdown, Bezos only rarely puts his thoughts into words.
When he does, he is intentionally obscure. “Bezos made a statement saying all the correct and anodyne things, but he was not terribly revealing,” David Remnick wrote shortly after Bezos announced he would buy The Washington Post. You could say that’s the way Bezos has operated at Amazon, the company that made him the world’s richest person. Or how he has lived his life.
Yes, he was forced to reveal some of his most intimate secrets when The National Enquirer reported that he was having an affair and threatened to publish embarrassing photos. But even then, he acted so that he could disclose his secrets on his own terms, thus denying his enemies the satisfaction of humiliating him. It worked. If there really were any photos, they have not surfaced.
Now both The New Yorker and The Atlantic have weighed in with lengthy pieces aimed at answering the question of what drives Amazon — and Bezos. The two articles, which run more than 13,000 and 11,000 words respectively, take very different approaches.
In The New Yorker, Charles Duhigg presents us with a classic business story, deep on details, both the good and the bad — some of which is very bad indeed, such as the company’s brutal work environment and its carnivorous relationship with companies that sell products on its site. Much of the ground Duhigg covers is familiar to those of us who’ve obsessed over Amazon. The most novel insight Duhigg offers is that Amazon, based as it is on a set of ideas (Bezos’ famous 14 Leadership Principles), can be likened to General Motors in its early decades — nimble and adaptable enough to enter and dominate industries entirely unrelated to its original mission of selling books.
Amazon Web Services, the server farm that powers organizations from Apple to the CIA, would be a paradigmatic example of that, but so would the rise of Amazon Prime as a media service that offers television, movies, music and, yes, one of the world’s great newspapers. By contrast, companies like Google and Facebook are similar to Ford in those early years, tied to search and social networking for the bulk of their revenues as firmly today as they were when they were founded. Amazon, like General Motors before it, is a “process company.” Google, Facebook and Ford are “product companies.”
All this is too mundane for Franklin Foer, who, writing in The Atlantic, offers a fanciful theory of Bezos. What really motivates Bezos — what pushes him to keep earning more and more money, far more than any person, or any 10,000 people, would ever need — is that he wants to go to outer space. Or, to put it more realistically (OK, not that much more realistically), he wants humanity to colonize space before we have made the earth entirely uninhabitable. Thus the founding of his rocket company, Blue Origin, which, Foer notes, Bezos has called his “most important work.” Foer adds, “With his wealth, and the megaphone that it permits him, Bezos is attempting to set the terms for the future of the species, so that his utopia can take root.”
Bezos does not like to talk to journalists. He rarely gives interviews — not to Brad Stone, the author of a 2013 book about Amazon called “The Everything Store.” Not to Duhigg. Not to Foer. Not even to The Washington Post, although he’s been quoted when he’s addressed the staff or participated in events such as a public conversation with the Post’s executive editor, Marty Baron.
And not to me. When I was researching my 2018 book on a new breed of wealthy newspaper owners, “The Return of the Moguls,” I spent months sending emails and snail-mails to Bezos and to various other people at the Post and at Amazon. The closest I got was a brief phone conversation with a top Amazon official who said he’d talk with Bezos about my request. No dice. A colleague even suggested that I fly to a place where Bezos was giving a speech and try to ambush him afterwards for a few quotes.
I decided not to. First, I had no confidence in my ability to stake out the right spot so that I could accost him as he was passing by. Second, I had even less confidence that he would stop and say anything — at least anything that wasn’t “correct and anodyne.” Other wealthy newspaper owners, including John Henry of The Boston Globe and Aaron Kushner, formerly of the Orange County Register, spoke with me at length. But Bezos proved as elusive with me as he does with everyone else.
So what’s next for Bezos and Amazon? At cultural moment when our love affair with all things tech is turning sour, the next few years could be unpleasant. Duhigg traces the history of antitrust law, explaining that, in recent decades, the government lost interest in breaking up monopolies unless they engaged in behavior that resulted in higher prices for consumers. Since Amazon’s stranglehold on the digital marketplace has resulted in lower prices, there was no reason to think there was a problem. Same with Google and Facebook, which, after all, are free.
Now, though, the antitrust worm is turning. Older ideas that monopolies are harmful to the economy regardless of their effect on prices are being embraced by everyone from antitrust regulators in President Trump’s Justice Department to Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, who has vowed to break up the tech monopolies. And, as we know, Trump has attacked Amazon repeatedly because of his fury over how the Post has covered him.
“We may be at a breaking point now,” writes Duhigg, who quotes the historian David Farber as telling him: “It’s like the 1880s or the 1930s all over again. The pressure is going to continue building, the powerful are going to continue being watched and criticized and gawked at, until something pops.”
What Bezos has always had going for him was his embrace of the long view, even unto the stars and beyond. “If you look at why Amazon is so different than almost any other company that started early on the internet, it’s because Jeff approached it from the very beginning with that long-term vision,” Brad Stone quotes Bezos’ friend Danny Hillis as saying in “The Everything Store.” “It was a multi-decade project. The notion that he can accomplish a huge amount with a larger time frame, if he is steady about it, is fundamentally his philosophy.”
Will Amazon keep getting bigger and bigger? Or are we at peak Amazon (and Google and Facebook), poised on the brink of a future that may look very different from what has come before? Bezos may still embrace the long view, but he’s 55 now, an age when most people in his position begin thinking about their legacy.
No doubt Bezos will continue to say correct and anodyne things. But as Duhigg and Foer make clear, he now faces a challenge unlike anything he’s had to deal with — the challenge of surviving the political and culture wars that have sprung up around him and, ultimately, becoming a good corporate citizen.
This seems rather prescient given the events of the past few days. Here’s what Jeff Bezos told Washington Post staffers in 2013, shortly after it was announced he’d buy the paper. From “The Return of the Moguls”:
In his message to Washington Post staff members the day that the purchase was announced, Bezos alluded to an infamous moment during Watergate when Nixon henchman John Mitchell barked at Bernstein that “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer” if a particularly damaging story were published. Bezos wrote, “While I hope no one ever threatens to put one of my body parts through a wringer, if they do, thanks to Mrs. Graham’s example, I’ll be ready.” As we shall see, it was not long before Bezos would be put to the test.
The first quote is from Katharine Graham’s autobiography, “Personal History”; the second is from a Post account of the sale.