PLUTOCRATS AUGUST 5, 2013
Sometime in the summer of 2009, back when I still worked as a reporter at The Washington Post, I found myself chatting over beers at the Post Pub, the unvarnished establishment cater-corner from the paper, with a business-side employee who mentioned a rather disconcerting stat: On one day in March of that year, in the very darkest days of the recession, there had been in the classified ad pages one job-wanted ad.
I didn’t need any primer on the troubles facing my industry—I grew up in a newspaper family and had worked at six papers, several of which were seriously diminished by 2009—but that stat has stuck with me ever since as the ultimate signpost of a crumbling business model. The public discussion of newspapers’ decline tends to focus on circulation, but newspaper people know that the devastation came as much on the ad side and above all in the lowly classifieds, which in their humble agate type had for decades delivered a disproportionate share of newspaper revenues. This was where the digital revolution first exacted its toll—how could you keep charging $10 a line for a used car or apartment or job listing when there was a guy who was letting people post ads for free online—all the while subsidizing that operation by charging $5 or $10 for prostitution ads of the sort no respectable daily newspaper would ever think of running (the law eventually made him shut it down, but not before it was bringing in $36 million per year).
Craigslist’s Craig Newmark has not bought the Post, thank goodness—that would be too much to bear. But Amazon's Jeff Bezos as the white knight provokes only slightly less shock and dolor. We knew the other guys had won a long time ago, but it’s another thing when they can waltz in and, in the charmless guise of “Explore Holdings LLC,” drop $250 million in cash for a legendary paper (that’s a mere one percent of Bezos’s net worth), as flip and easy as plucking an Apollo rocket engine from the ocean or building a $42 million, 10,000-year clock in West Texas.
There are already hopeful noises coming out of the corner of 15th and L about Bezos as owner, compared with other possibilities. He is promising independence. He is, for now, keeping the leadership team in place (let's hope in particular that he keeps editor Marty Baron, under whose leadership the paper has been doing some notably hard-edged and influential journalism). His politics are not visibly objectionable. But let’s not kid ourselves here: The company that made him one of the richest men in the world has had a less than benign impact on our nation. It has devastated the publishing industry, from the big presses to the small booksellers. It has exacerbated the growth of the low-wage economy, to the point where the president feels the need to celebrate an increase in warehouse jobs that will pay barely more than minimum wage. (Fun fact uncovered by the Morning Call in Allentown, Pa. two years ago: Instead of paying for air-conditioning at some Pennsylvania warehouses, Amazon had just stationed paramedics outside to take the inevitably heat-stressed workers to the hospital.)
More generally, Amazon has embodied, more than any other of the giants that rule our new landscape, the faster-cheaper-further mindset that scratches away daily at our communal fabric: Why bother running down to the store around the block if you can buy it with a click? No risk of running into someone on the way and actually having to talk to them, and hey, can you beat that price? No thought given to the externalities that make that price possible—the workers being violently shocked every time they pull a book off the warehouse shelf, or losing a chunk of their lunch break to go through the security checkpoint set up by their oh-so-trusting employer. They’re Somewhere Else, working for a company that is Out There, in the cloud.
Not that we should let ourselves go overboard in our lament for what came before. The Grahams are a remarkable Washington family, and I was as grateful as any of my fellow reporters for the notes that would occasionally arrive from Don with a kind and utterly sincere word for a piece he had liked. But we also should bear in mind the many decisions that can be second-guessed in hindsight—among many others, the decision not to make the paper national in scope and distribution, like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal; to keep the online operation separate as long as it was; to hold off so long on instituting a paywall. And we should most definitely not forget the failure to prevent what unfolded at the company’s Kaplan education division, which was raking in huge profits from for-profit colleges with a highly dubious business model; when those improprieties were exposed and the Obama administration proposed new rules to protect students and taxpayers from being exploited, Don Graham went to Capitol Hill to lobby aggressively against them, seemingly unaware that his indubitable virtue as grandfather of the Post did not necessarily transfer to this other realm.
Now the Grahams can go back to doing as they see fit with Kaplan, without worry that they are in any way imperiling the newspaper’s public trust. That trust has been passed to Jeff Bezos, who will hopefully treat it with more care than his company did those heat-stricken workers deemed undeserving of an air-conditioning system. I avoid buying from Amazon as best I can, but I’ll keep subscribing to my old paper as long as they keep printing it, which, to hear Bezos himself tell it, will likely end sooner than the mogul’s 10,000-year clock.
Alec MacGillis is a New Republic senior editor. Follow him @AlecMacGillis.