Toward a durable, dictator-proof Washington Post

Jeff Bezos, owner of the Washington Post, is building a 10,000-year clock into a West Texas mountain. The idea is to foster future-mindedness. Can he somehow make the Post last a century or more — and advance the public interest along the way?

The old Washington Post building — demolished in 2016. In at least a metaphorical sense, could 
a dictator tear down the newsroom inside the replacement building? 
Photo by Wikipedia User Antony 22. Licensed under CC-BY-SA-4.0.

Mr. Bezos, meet John Russell Scott or at least his benevolent ghost. In 1936 Scott founded a trust for the Manchester Guardian in the UK to safeguard journalistic integrity and fight for the public interest. The trust would plow profits into the news operation, not enrich shareholders. Scott championed a durable model. The trust has evolved into the Scott Trust Limited company — adapted for modern British law but retaining its core nonprofit philosophy.

I think of Scott when Bezos says businesses needn’t mire themselves in the same metrics forever. Bezos’s stated goal is happy consumers, but here’s another tack. The Post should adopt new metrics reflecting Scott’s philosophy rather than fixating on the usual P&L — just so the paper stays in the black, long term. For a $200-billion man as of this writing, the Post is chump change. In 2013 Bezos paid a mere $250 million for it, 1/800 of his current worth or half the price of his new super yacht. We’re not talking about a threat to his solvency even with major improvements and ongoing expenses.

An alternative to “How do I charge them enough?”

The metrics of a trust model could reflect the priorities of serving the country and planet at large. Will Lewis, the Post’s new CEO and publisher, recently talked about pursuing extra-specialized markets. Wonderful! But then Lewis asked: “How do I charge them enough?” For whose budgets? I’d love to see Lewis go after the same markets through aggregated content or otherwise, but without needing to pay so much attention to the metrics of profit. High prices would harm well-financed corporate lobbyists less than academics, public interest groups, and, of course, journalists without access to the same treasure troves of information. On topics such as the environment and occupational safety, some of the most arcane facets make the biggest difference. Under the new metrics and with income from the trust, Lewis more often could ask a different question: “How do I keep charges affordable without sacrificing quality?”

Publications like the New York Times strive to serve the common good, but lacking Bezos’s Midas-sized fortune, they can go only so far. Smaller and midsized papers and online startups won’t be enough by themselves even if Press Forward and other laudable initiatives succeed. Media giants like the Post enjoy the capabilities and national brand names to help balance out rogue corporations and powerful authoritarian-crooks in Washington.

Let’s not worry about redundancies between the Post, the Times, ProPublica and others. There are plenty of urgent corruption and government accountability stories to go around. A good-sized trust or corporate equivalent would enable the Post to pursue more, both alone and in partnership with other news organizations such as smaller dailies, just like ProPublica. Significantly, the Post and Times are national agenda-setters. Smaller news organizations are no replacement for large ones and vice versa.

Other reasons exist for Bezos to think about a Guardian-style transition. The scary Twitter acquisition by Elon Musk spotlights the risks of media-related companies falling into the wrong hands. Do we really need the Washington X? Similarly, what if a media mogul akin to Lachlan Murdoch swoops in and molds the Post in the vein of Fox News? Even a brain like Bezos’s cannot predict the whims of managers or of heirs eager to cash in in the future, especially the far future. Note Alden Global Capital’s abysmal choice of the new owner for the Baltimore Sun. David D. Smith is a right-wing ideologue who wants the Sun to ape the sensationalism of his TV news operation and fixate on profit at the expense of public service.

A bulwark against Trump Redux

A well-structured, transparent trust or corporate equivalent also would be a bulwark against such journalistic threats as a Trump Redux — either the original or an acolyte. The menace is real. Running for President the first time around, Trump issued Mafia-style threats against Bezos’s Amazon, too, not just the Post. “If I become president, oh do they have problems. They’re going to have such problems.” Coincidentally or not, the Trump White House told the Pentagon to reexamine a $10 billion cloud-computing contract. He personally accused “the Amazon Washington Post” of pushing favorable tax and antitrust treatment for Bezos. Of course, one of the best protections against such thuggery would be the greater impact that the Post would enjoy after morphing from a traditional profit-maker into a public service.

The reborn Post should not exist to war against any particular politicians, in line with the thinking of Marty Barton, the former executive editor. But the effect would be the same even if it just stuck to its job of reporting and opining on the news with the public in mind. At the same time, the Post could worry less about routine horse-race political coverage. With the trust or an equivalent to help fortify it against financial and legal pressures, the paper could focus more on authoritarians threatening its very existence and democracy in general. All justified in the name of old-fashioned news judgment!

Granted, Jeff Bezos is no priest. Furthermore, he and I would be miles apart on issues ranging from consumer ebook formats to antitrust and labor laws. Also, potential conflict-of-interest risks abound, with Amazon’s major presence in the D.C. area. But according to Baron’s recent memoir, Collision of Power, Bezos has eschewed micromanagement of news and opinion writing.

NiemanLab contributor and Northeastern University Prof. Dan Kennedy reached a similar conclusion in a 2018 book, The Return of the Moguls. Kennedy also wrote: “When Bezos met with Post staff members a month after he announced he would buy the paper, he told them that they should ‘feel free to cover Amazon any way you want, feel free to cover Jeff Bezos any way you want.’ By the spring of 2017, there were no reports that Bezos had tried to interfere with the Post’s news coverage. Indeed, within days of the announcement that he would buy the paper, the Post published an in-depth examination of Bezos and Amazon that could fairly be described as warts and all — he was described as ‘ruthless’ and a ‘bully’ in his dealings with competitors and a boss who was known for launching ‘tirades’ that ‘humiliated colleagues.’” A trust or equivalent would further isolate Bezos and Amazon from the editorial side while easing the way for him to bow out entirely.

In creating a Scott-style model for the Post, Bezos would remain a capitalist in good standing. The reinvented Post could still sell ads and subscriptions. Today’s paper already offers a certain number of free articles per month on the Web, just like the Guardian. Obviously, the better funded the trust or equivalent, the more facts and informed opinion the Post could offer online for free and help offset AI-created propaganda and other craziness on social media.

Fickle, truculent dictators: Not the best business partners

In another respect, too, Bezos’s credentials as a capitalist would be safe. Honest, informative journalism can enable not only democracy but well-run, customer-friendly businesses. When journalists exposed Wells Fargo’s fake accounts, savvy customers migrated to more ethically run competitors. This collateral benefit to business brings to mind Andrew Carnegie’s understanding of the value of public libraries, and who could have been more of a capitalist? As founder of Amazon and space firm Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos at least theoretically relies on fair regulations and other even-handedness to thrive in business. No, all is not perfect, far from it. But Bezos presumably is savvy enough to know the perils of a business model dependent on bribery and the fickle goodwill of a truculent dictator whose loyalty tends to be one way.

Now consider a proudly crooked Trump-ruled America where investigative journalism and other protections are underfunded or lacking or worse. Would you want the Securities and Exchange Commission corrupted into a kleptocratic tool that rewards White House favorites and punishes companies out of favor like Amazon? Even privately held companies could suffer. Seeking federal contracts amid the decline of investigative reporting, Blue Origin could find space ambitions dashed by such capricious power, in line with Trump’s earlier hopes for Bezos’s businesses. Responsible oversight by the press and government agencies safeguards well-managed corporations against punitive political actions — the very retribution that aspiring dictators dream of.

Granted, under an absolute dictator, no major media company would be totally safe from closure, imposed corruption, or forced sale to tyrant-blessed investors. But a mix of stellar journalism, enough money, the right legal structure, and good lawyering and lobbying could raise the bar. The new Post probably would not meet the standards for intellectual and political freedom that Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky set forth in Manufacturing Consent, but it still would be more resilient against Trump-style rulers than the current newspaper is.

Examples of the new metrics — overlapping somewhat with the old

In protecting the Post’s independence from thieves and authoritarians, a sufficiently sized trust or the equivalent could actually improve the paper’s quality. The new metrics could reflect an independent committee’s assessment of the quality and usefulness of the Post’s journalism, including the originality and boldness. For years, I’ve helped judge a major journalism competition, and we numerically rate everything from the impact of submitted stories to the level of the writing. The proposed committee could care about Web traffic to keep the Post in the public’s minds, including engagement metrics, not just crude click numbers, and it could also count up small donations — one way for outsiders to speak out about the paper’s performance. Polls and focus groups would help but would be far from the main determinant.

To minimize waste, another criterion could be economic efficiency. The same for ad and subscription sales. The big difference would be that the traditional numbers wouldn’t count as much as they do now, since the Post would be run as a sustainable enterprise in the public interest, rather than as a mere profit generator.

After establishing the trust or a corporate equivalent, Bezos could choose to phase out his involvement and devote more time to Blue Origin, his other favored causes, and co-parenting his children. Governing the new organization would be a diversified board comprising exceptional figures in journalism, business, law, science, history, and other specialties. All would be well-vetted First Amendment stalwarts dedicated over the years to the common good.

Strengthening the Post’s commitment to public interest journalism, the new structure could also improve the paper’s labor relations. While it would not yield immense wealth for its staff, it would offer stability and the freedom to pursue journalism that matters, unfettered by financial anxieties. Labor relations would be less tense.

Civic dashboards and AI: Catnip for academics and conscientious activists at all levels

One area ripe for innovation under this model is local journalism. Despite its national and international acclaim, the Post badly needs to bolster coverage in D.C. and the suburbs. The reinvented Post could pioneer and refine initiatives like civic dashboards, offering real-time, accessible statistics and other information on local governance and public issues. Political donations, zoning matters, personnel vacancies and appointments — those are just a few examples of how the Post could systematically keep local civic associations and others up to date. Can’t democracy thrive in brighter light, not just avoid dying in darkness? Similar concepts could apply to national and international coverage. Imagine the boon for university researchers, think tanks of all stripes, and others for whom the Post could organize raw data and make it more searchable. In effect, the Post itself would in some ways be a think tank, albeit with plenty of leg work and more polished presentation of information. Will Lewis’s basic vision of using AI to customize information for Post subscribers would likely fit in well at all levels of news coverage, including local.

An ample fund, ideally scaled to $2.5 billion or more in five years, could underpin these ambitions. Four percent annual yield could cover even a $100-million deficit. Given Bezos’s gargantuan net worth, this spread-out investment is feasible and could inspire the adoption of similar models in other major cities, possibly supported by lower levels of funding or multi-donor contributions. The Guardian has faced financial challenges in the past, just as the Post does today, so I myself would prefer a cushion — and vigilance against overspending. Even at far less than $2.5 billion, however, the fund could still help.

While the editorial stance under such an arrangement might not match the Guardian’s progressivism, a similar business model would protect the Post’s legacy of impactful investigative journalism and advocacy for essential causes like transparent governance at all levels, voter rights, gender equality, and the environment.
But for 10,000 years, like the clock in the West Texas mountain or elsewhere? Jeff Bezos knows that civilizations have their expiration dates, and surely the same applies to newspapers. But the right trust or an equivalent would help. I’ll gladly settle for a millennium or even a mere century or two.

Update, February 13, about 12:30 a.m.: I’ve just become aware of Politico’s Feb. 11 collection of brief suggestions for Will Lewis from prominent experts. Edward Wasserman, a former news executive now in academia, wants Bezos to put the Post’s ownership “in an appropriate independent foundation capitalized with $1 billion from Jeff Bezos’ sock drawer, and use the roughly $50 million in annual income to subsidize the Post’s magnificent editorial operation. Bezos would have no role, direct or indirect, in the administration of the money or the operations of the foundation.”

Wow, so close to my own thoughts! I’ll worry less about who was first with the idea (NiemanLab saw an earlier version of my manuscript weeks ago but preferred a different approach) and more about Bezos’s following the advice here. Wasserman’s sentiments strengthen my arguments.

Update, February 13, 11:45 a.m.: The Conversation has just published Saving the news media means moving beyond the benevolence of billionaires. The essay makes two excellent points among others.

First, many wealthy benefactors may tire of the dismal economics of the news business — the market failure. Second, some of the billionaires come with built-in conflicts of interest. Exactly! Bezos should stop looking at the Post as a profit-maker and shift it to a public-serve model, using new metrics. Furthermore, an independent Post with an endowment would reduce conflict-of-interest complications involving Amazon or Bezos’s other businesses.

This valuable essay by Rodney Benson and Victor Pickard mentions the possibility of public funding and cites several existing examples. Whatever works! I’m concerned, however, that with Trumpism polluting even local politics, public funding might be problematic in the future in many situations. Remember, Trump is pro-censor and often demands that his followers toe the line exactly.

The Conversation piece also mentions some endowment-style efforts happening in Philadelphia, Salt Lake City and France. Clearly, in turning to a Guardian-style solution for the Post, Bezos would not be the first.

Update, February 14, 2:50 p.m.: Ideally, prominent news organizations covering journalism, politics and other areas can follow up. NiemanLab told me it preferred to link to or originate interviews where Post-related people shared their own vision. I myself think Bezos and Lewis would be wise not to lock plans into place. What’s more, in some important ways, such as customization of information for readers, our visions overlap. I’d hope that Bezos and others would be open to outside input.

Editor’s Note – This article is republished with permission of the author with first publication on Medium.

Posted in: Civil Liberties, Economy, Ethics, Free Speech, Freedom of Information, KM, Leadership, Management, Social Media, Technology Trends