I was one of the few who found reason for optimism in Washington, D.C. this week.
While the city and nation gyrated about the federal government shutting down, I watched the ownership of The Washington Post pass from the fabled Graham family to Jeff Bezos, founder of amazon.com.
The $250 million transaction took place on Tuesday, October 1. I woke early Wednesday and wondered. What would that morning’s paper look like? Would it be delivered in an Amazon box? Would a Kindle be enclosed with every copy, plus a note that paper is over? Would Amazon’s dream of same-day delivery be instantly realized, at least in Washington and its suburbs?
Bezos is a newspaper fan, but not a newspaperman. He has only very recently shown any interest in politics. He plans to continue living in the other Washington, three thousand miles away, where he will keep his “day job” running the world’s largest online retailer.
In his only interviews since the sale was announced in August, he has professed curiosity but no knowledge about what could restore one of the nation’s best newspapers to its Watergate-era sheen. He made multiple references in that interview to providing the Post with “more runway.” We assumed that his metaphor had to do with airplanes, acceleration and elevation, but maybe he was thinking of a fashion show. He can be sure everyone will be watching his every move.
After the initial shock, there’s been hardly a peep from the staff about the Post’s future. If anything, industry experts and Post letter writers have praised the Graham family for extending their stewardship beyond three generations by carefully choosing not the highest but the best bidder for the institution they have presided over since 1875.
Wednesday’s newspaper dropped a single line in its masthead that identified Donald E. Graham as Chairman of the Board. No other changes were evident. A section-front review praised Dave Eggers’ new book eviscerating social media and a culture of omni-connectedness, without making any mention of whether it’s available as an ebook. (It is. Kindle edition: $11.84)
The Post will be tinkered with, but the unfavorable economic trends for newspapers will not force billionaire Bezos to hurry. His checkbook will allow a new era of experimentation for whatever form the daily town crier may take next. That should be considered very good news.
It should be noted that this transaction closed the same day that Portland’s daily newspaper ceased daily delivery, scaling their subscriptions back to the four days that garner the best advertising income.
This may sound counter-intuitive, but we may be entering a golden age for innovation and social progress. The business tycoons of the Information Age are cashing in and competing now as philanthropists. A new cocktail party ice breaker has emerged: “How large is your largesse?”
If we’re living in another gilded age, at least we’re starting to see some of that gild dispersed.
John G. Shedd devoted his generosity a century ago to three of Chicago’s cornerstone museums, including the aquarium that bears his name. Ginevra Ralph, with her husband Jim, carried on her great grandfather’s tradition when they built the John G. Shedd Institute for the Arts in Eugene.
Andrew Carnegie gave construction grants to build more than 2,500 libraries around the world, including one in Eugene on Willamette Street near 13th Avenue. It was torn down during the urban renewal frenzy of the 1960s, but most of those buildings remain and many still operate as libraries.
Those business tycoons devoted their riches to improving information, building museums, libraries, and universities. Now it’s time for those who made their money on information to invest their fortunes on whatever will come next.
Paypal co-founder Elon Musk is building electric cars and commercial space ships. Google is determined to teach cars to drive themselves. Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison spent millions last week to win America’s Cup, which operated like a rocket with a fin in the San Francisco bay.
Microsoft’s Bill Gates wants to end polio and then malaria. Nike co-founder Phil Knight pledged $500 million last month to OHSU to defeat cancer. Google’s Larry Page was profiled in TIME magazine for his company’s efforts to “solve death.”
These are not small problems that have yielded to the incremental solutions that business models so reliably produce. Google’s Page refers to them as “moon shots.” The risks are large, but the potential benefits are much larger.
Will humans suddenly soon go faster and farther, and for longer? I only hope whatever The Washington Post becomes, it’s there to document every step.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.