Bezos Could Give Washington Post The Gift Of Time

Aug 7, 2013
Originally published on August 7, 2013 4:05 pm

Earlier this week, online shopping pioneer Jeff Bezos said he would buy The Washington Post.

Given the sorry state of newspaper finances, some saw his move as an act of civic charity.

Others believe Bezos is a shrewd businessman who hopes to make the Post very profitable again. Maybe both views are right.

Marilyn Geewax, a senior business editor with NPR, joins us to discuss how the new philanthropy may involve giving the gift of time — time to figure out a new business model that works.



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From NPR and WBUR Boston, it's HERE AND NOW. I'm Robin Young.

And much has been made of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos buying The Washington Post. Given the sorry state of newspapers, it's been seen as an act of charity or the move of a shrewd businessman to make a profit from The Post. Maybe it's both.

Marilyn Geewax, a senior business editor with NPR, notes that the new philanthropy may involve giving the gift of time, but time to figure out a business model that pays off.

So, Marilyn, Bezos has said he's willing to be patient, but he's got a fortune of about $28 billion and he's just 49. That doesn't sound patient.

MARILYN GEEWAX, BYLINE: Well, it is amazing how much money he's managed to amass in his 30s, in his 40s. And it's not just how much money he made but the impact that he's had on the world. You know, if you think back 20 years ago, online shopping barely existed. And then in 1994, he left a Wall Street career. He went out to Seattle. He invented Amazon, and it was just wildly successful. Within five years, he was on Time magazine's cover as Man of the Year. OK, so he's beaten out. He slapped me a little bit here.


GEEWAX: I tell you. But, you know, Amazon is the biggest online retailer in the world now, and that seems very fast. But really, Bezos is known in the business world for taking things so slow.

YOUNG: Well, explain that because there is a literal slow money movement. It's a fellow name Woody Tasch and others there willing to wait decades for a return on investment. What's the difference here?

GEEWAX: Well, where he showed his patience was not so much with a small business and thinking in decades, but he was willing in the late 1990s - when you think about that crazy tech bubble period, entrepreneurs were rushing out there with these dot com companies. And they wanted to cash in very quickly. They went straight to Wall Street. It looked like they made millions of dollars in stock, at least on paper. But then the tech bubble burst in early 2000, and a lot of those stock options just became worthless.

Bezos was not that kind of a guy. That was not his style. He was not a flipper. He was a builder. And he just kept plowing money back into his business. So this seems almost like hard to believe when I look back on this data, but Amazon didn't make any annual profit until 2003. So he was doing business from '94 to '03 before he actually came to his shareholders with a profit. And in that time, in that circumstance on Wall Street, that is really a lot of patience. And there was a great quote from him at a shareholders meeting a couple of years ago. He said, we are willing to be misunderstood for a long time.

YOUNG: Well, so speaking of time, he has a fascination with that, and it sounds as if you're saying he's willing to be patient with The Washington Post. But like, he wants that payoff at the end. Sum it all up.

GEEWAX: Well, that's exactly right. He's always had this fascination with time. He's, in fact, spending $42 million of his own money to build this giant clock inside of a West Texas mountain. I know that sounds kind of crazy, but it's a 10,000-year clock. So he's always had this interest in understanding time in a different sort of way. And I think what he really realizes now is that time is our scarcest resource.

You know, look around the world, there are lots of capitalists with money. They're willing to invest but they want a quick return. And what Bezos has the wisdom to see is that, right now, what people need is time to figure out a new business model, to not have to just always worry about that quarterly report, but to really take the time to sit back and think, what works? How are we going to come up with a business model that keeps journalism, serious journalism alive?

And, you know, I was thinking about Andrew Carnegie. He was a big industrialist. And a century ago, he was plowing money into libraries for long-term education. Now, what we need to do is get that time to figure out a way to plow money and resources into news to educate people too.

YOUNG: Hmm. Well, it'll be fascinating to watch. Marilyn Geewax, NPR senior business editor. Thanks so much.

GEEWAX: Oh, you're welcome.

YOUNG: Quick break. Be right back. HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.