Hedgefox Buys Metayacht
Many people are trying to figure out why Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post, so in the same spirit—the spirit of trying to understand the intentions of powerful people willing to pay to maintain the sensory organs of our society—I too will speculate
To a reasonable approximation, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos knows everything worth knowing. Bezos can be understood  as a 48-year-old human male who is somewhere between puckish and gnomish; and  as a massive set of personnel, mechanical, and financial systems connected to . As a mogul, he and his enterprises have become a kind of technical substrate that one finds right under the cultural topsoil—call it the Bezos Layer.
Here are some things that Bezos knows: What people are browsing on the Web (Amazon owns web analytics platform Alexa.com). How the world is using the Internet, and how traffic flows through a great portion of the web (and not just private organizations: the CIA, for example, wanted to pay $600 million to rent cloud computing capacity from Amazon, although IBM is nudging in). He knows what books the world is reading, of course; he’s known that for years. He knows the number of diapers it needs, and many of its credit card numbers. He knows about spaceships. He thinks in platforms, in huge interlocking systems. If “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,” he is the owner of a gigantic fox-hedgehog hybridized-breeding facility. He is…the foxhog. (Actually, “hedgefox” sounds a little better. Save “foxhog” for something else.) He is…the hedgefox.
Why would such a man want to own the Washington Post? Note that he bought it for himself, off his own wishlist and from the pockets of his own sweatpants. Note also that press baronetcy has long been an outlet for the more decayed and bizarre sort of wealth—people who for whatever reason can’t buy political office. Ink by the barrel, &c. Trace back most any media property to its source and you’ll find the weird rich, much odder than your typical rich people, who are already weird. (Full disclosure: Society is insane.) But in contrast Bezos is a capitalist saint—one for whom building a global media platform is as simple as pointing to a part of the Bezos Layer and saying, “there.”
Amazon isn’t a store. It’s a system for making other systems, some of which sell things. He has a meta-platform from which he can, with a wink and a wave, fabricate any media platform he could imagine. Still he buys a big old paper?
One of the rules of modern life is that you can’t choose your billionaires; they choose you. They produce the TV that keeps you occupied, manufacture the electric cars you yearn to drive, and publish the newspapers for which you refuse to pay. Such people don’t have to work, but they need to keep busy. This they do by building or buying things that change the warp and weft of our shared culture. And by planning menus.
Let’s focus on the first thing. It makes cultural sense for the Koch Brothers to eye the Los Angeles Times for takeover: They get bad press and lust for power. Since no paper will willingly submit to their burning urges they may need to buy one.
Again—not Bezos. He could slip leaflets into every Amazon box and have a greater reach than any paper in the world. As to the Post, aren’t there cheaper, more efficient ways to find power in Washington, D.C., and without alienating your customers? For example Bezos could buy Politico and destroy it utterly, then salt the ground on which it sits while grinding its web servers into powder, and we would all celebrate this gift to humankind way more than the future descendants of our parched hellworld will celebrate some oddball clock in the desert.
People hate the media and with good reason; it tells them things, often without first asking their permission (self-link; deal). And usually the writers take the brunt of popular hatred; after all the words are theirs. But sooner or later people figure out who really owns the paper and pays the salaries and start to yell and scream and promise boycotts. In order to stomach running a paper, an owner needs to take a near-erotic pleasure in being: (A) hated; and (B) sued. Newspaper employees sometimes hate their owners, too, and will humiliate them. It’s the inverse of a compliment sandwich. The owner of a mass-market news publication is typically the money cream in an Oreo of hate.
Not long ago, in a moment of Internet ridiculousness, Business Insider founder Henry Blodget bought a print newspaper and reported on the experience of reading it—which, tweet what you will, was at least a written narrative and not sensationalized aggregation.
Despite Blodget’s winking focus on dried pulp, a paper is so much more than the thing one holds in ones hands. It is a whole network of things. As Blodget himself wrote in a later, less trollful piece:
First, I’d guess that Jeff Bezos thinks that owning the Washington Post will be fun, interesting, and cool. And my guess is that, if that is all it ever turns out to be, Jeff Bezos will be fine with that. This is a man who invests in rockets and atomic clocks, after all. He doesn’t necessarily make these investments for the money. Or bragging rights. Or strategic synergies.
Second, I’d guess that Jeff Bezos thinks that there are some similarities between the digital news business and his business (e-commerce) that no one in the news business has really capitalized on yet.
Or as Matt Buchanan writes in the New Yorker’s Elements blog:
But the fairest way to look at the deal is to see it as something done by a man who is attempting to completely change the way people and corporations distribute, purchase, and consume practically everything—and who wants to send humans into space en masse.
So, Bezos bought the Post for the same reason people climb mountains: Because he can afford to.
Which brings me to the point of this whole exercise (I appreciate you weathering this storm of words, thanks, I’m having a blast). I think that “What was Bezos thinking?” is a meh question about one dude and one paper.
Let’s go with Occam’s Razor: He was thinking, “I would like to own that newspaper.” That he has a complete understanding of what “newspaper” really means is obvious from the well-received letter he sent employees. If he can understand the business then mazel tov, because news business models make the typical Internet business model look like a lemonade stand.
I believe that it’s more profitable (literally) to contemplate not the innards of Bezos’s big brain, but rather what happens when systems that operate at a peak level of abstraction engage in communicative intercourse. In this case: The Washington Post as an entity and the Bezos Layer. Humans are involved, as they regretfully always are, but this is also a story about merging ideologies, about one great tentacle-laden corporate-human entity, the Hedgefox, tumefying a tentacle and spraying great blasts of life-sustaining cash all over a smaller, quivering entity, the Foxhog. Then eating it.
What has he eaten? Could it poison him? I think everyone knows that a man worth $25 billion is an oddity, but newspapers are yet stranger things, and often prove indigestible. As Blodget and Buchanan both pointed out, a newspaper is engaged in a particular sort of manufacturing. When Bezos was a kid papers were so cool that superheroes—Superman, Spider-Man—were the lamest people in the newsroom.
You might hold the newsprint in your hands and marvel at it, but that physical object is but a temporary manifestation of an enormous (by pre-2006-standards) network of machines and people. You buy a newspaper company and you buy the reporters’ time, their network of sources and connections. You buy the readers’ time, the sales teams, the advertising relationships. Hundreds of thousands of such connections, a dense social web that mirrors a geography and that stretches decades into the past.
Then, because of the unique role of journalists and editors as a sort of quasi-academic class, you also own a ship that can sail between different cultural islands. On any day the ship calls at the ports of academia, publishing, thinktanks, councils of various kinds of relations, and also stops at the smarter wings of government. Call this ship a metayacht.
Because it’s the Post it has reach into the dumber wings of government too. It’s a dense interconnected network in an ancient mode, a deeply retro, power-granting, thrumming jumble of tribal anxiety. Interesting to consider that he didn’t buy the future-looking Washington Post digital labs when he bought the paper.
Another thing about papers is that back in the day they were technologically fantastic. In order to do their newsy deeds they of necessity solved the problems that Amazon and its megakin would later solve again—problems of electronic transmission, rights and permissions, content delivery, user engagement, design and layout, and servicing local business. Unfortunately they did all this a century early, and got caught up in their medium of choice. It became hard for them to move into the present, away from the thrills of past profits.
What made it all so painful is that the relationship of city to paper, of power to press, and of people to paper, had been stratified and defined with an elegance that capitalism rarely achieves, simultaneously enforcing cultural norms (the society page) while serving a populist function (voter guides, rabble-rousing columnists, advocacy). One could even celebrate it in film, as in All The President’s Men. Or decry it, as in Citizen Kane. There’s even a just-published roundup of “Newspaper Movies” at (another, whoa) New Yorker blog.
As we were screechingly informed, newspapers were late to “get” the Internet, and when they “got it” they couldn’t figure out how to charge for their product. Bezos was as early on the Internet as could be, never seemed to listen to anyone, and his company rarely gave things away, although it has a curious relationship to profitability. He came, he charged, he fought unions, and he conquered. Shows you what happens when you listen to pundits. And now the power is handed over from one form of American royalty to another, from the Graham Family to the Bezos Layer.
It’s not the worst thing. It could be a fine thing. It could be nothing. He wants the paper to thrive. What is a thriving paper? Annoying to all, bristling with controversy, and indifferent to the censure of the powerful. As to the Post, well. [Whistle, look out window.]
Let’s hope the man has genuine fun with the new social-mechanical-cultural-political-apparatus-thing that he owns. You can’t choose your billionaires, but you could choose a worse one. When gods frolic, the rain that falls tastes sweet.