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Mr. Bezos Goes to Washington (DC)
News that the Washington Post is being sold to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has stunned the media world and drawn widely varying reactions. Our own view of the deal has been complicated, on the one hand, by our long association with the Post and, on the other, by our more recent involvement in the independent book business competing against Amazon.
Each of us spent significant portions of our working lives at the newspaper—Brad as a foreign correspondent, editor and Pentagon reporter, and Lissa as a reporter and editor on the metro and sports staffs. Both of us were hired during the legendary era of Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee and continued to work at the paper under Don Graham's leadership. Don is someone we both admire greatly, and we can't imagine either journalism or Washington without the Post.
We fervently want to believe that the Graham family's decision to sell the paper to Bezos is a smart business move that will, as supporters of the deal contend, breathe new life into the Post and enable it to prosper during the digital age. The Grahams have made clear they are counting on Bezos' deep pockets and on his reputation as a visionary and innovator to re-think the newspaper business and finance necessary changes.
But in the past two years, as stewards of another local cultural institution—Politics & Prose—we've routinely encountered a different version of Bezos. Indeed, among many independent booksellers he is perceived as a ruthless competitor bent on disrupting traditional retailers, including bookstores, without regard for the civic and commercial value that local bricks-and-mortar establishments still bring to neighborhoods around the country. Reflecting the unease with which booksellers view the Post sale, Shelf Awareness, a daily book industry blog, wrote: "For our part, all we can say is that for the people who have called us paranoid about Amazon's plan for world domination, we rest our case—nervously."
Yes, Amazon has transformed bookselling in ways that have afforded consumers greater convenience, lower costs and digital alternatives. But in doing so, the company also has engaged in questionable practices such as selling below cost to gain market share and evading the collection of sales taxes. It also has sought to bully smaller companies that have resisted its terms, and it has been criticized for poor workplace conditions in the United States and abroad.
Perhaps because those of us in the bookstore business view Bezos through the lens of frontline combatants, we have difficulty sharing Don Graham's confidence that the Amazon founder (a Washington outsider with no newspaper experience who plans to continue living in Seattle) will do the right thing and maintain the Post's high journalistic standards and deep commitment to the DC area. In any case, the Post purchase will certainly enhance Bezos's—and Amazon's—influence in Washington, which already is considerable. Just look at President Obama's decision last month to travel to an Amazon facility in Tennessee for a speech highlighting job creation. Or the Justice Department's recent action against Apple and major book publishers, accusing them of colluding to raise e-book prices and reduce Amazon's dominance of the e-book market.
Little wonder that the Post deal has generated a heavy measure of gallows humor from some in the book business. One wondered how Bezos could afford to purchase the newspaper "after he bought the Justice Department." Another, struggling to sound a positive note, quipped, "At least it wasn't Murdoch."
Now that Bezos will be a DC business owner, we'd like to extend our own welcome to him. We even hope that he might find time when in town to visit Politics & Prose and be reminded of the benefits afforded by local bookstores—the joy of browsing shelves, the help provided by expert staff, the pleasures of attending author events, and above all, the shared sense of community.
--Brad and Lissa