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Jeff Bezos helped The Washington Post ‘take advantage of the gift' of the internet: Marty Baron

·Deputy Managing Editor
·4 min read
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Jeff Bezos’ name is synonymous with the e-commerce behemoth he created, but now his influence extends far beyond the internet giant Amazon (AMZN). Most recently, just after stepping down from his CEO role, he launched himself into space nine days after fellow billionaire Richard Branson left the Earth.

But the space race is far from Bezos’ only non-Amazon endeavor. Perhaps, most notably, Bezos agreed to buy The Washington Post for $250 million in 2013. In a new interview for Influencers with Andy Serwer, that paper’s former top editor, Martin Baron, explains how Bezos changed the fortunes of a newspaper that was struggling despite a rich history of “shining a light in dark corners.”

At the time, The Washington Post, though it specialized in politics coverage, existed fundamentally as a regional publication, according to Baron, author of the forthcoming book “Collision of Power: Trump, Bezos, and The Washington Post.” And local and regional players like The Post were ailing as internet giants like Google ate up advertising dollars.

“Jeff came in and said that model for The Post was no longer working. All of the pillars of our business had really collapsed,” said Baron, who joined The Post in 2013 and retired this year. “We had suffered all the pain that the internet had to offer, but we had failed to take advantage of that gift that the internet had to offer.”

WASHINGTON, DC- MAY 18:Martin Baron interviews Jeff Bezos at The Washington Post via Getty Images Transformers event. (Photo by April Greer For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 18: Martin Baron interviews Jeff Bezos at The Washington Post via Getty Images Transformers event. (Photo by April Greer For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

That gift, Baron said, was worldwide distribution at little incremental cost. When Bezos came in, Baron said, he helped the paper leverage its existing assets to expand its coverage and reach a global audience.

“We were based in the nation’s capital, which is a good base for becoming a national and even international publication,” said Baron, who previously served as executive editor of The Boston Globe and was famously portrayed by Liev Schreiber in the movie “Spotlight.”

Bezos recognized The Post had name recognition that could be leveraged nationally and internationally, according to Baron. That paper also had a history of investigative journalism forged at the time of Watergate, when it broke the news of a break-in that would take down a president and spur people everywhere to attach the suffix “gate” to any scandal.

“A lot of people who had never actually read The Post before had an impression of what The Post was and what its mission was,” Baron said. “And so we were in a position to capitalize on that. But we had not yet done so.”

A bigger internet presence with an 'old-fashioned' news approach

The reimagining of The Post began almost immediately after Bezos arrived. In January 2014, The Post launched “The Morning Mix,” a blog filled with viral stories from around the internet. It also started an online personal finance section. And in September 2014, Bezos tapped Politico founder Fred Ryan to take over as The Post’s publisher, in yet another sign of the owner’s focus on digital growth.

Meanwhile, The Post began charging frequent visitors to its website, following in the footsteps of other so-called legacy publications like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and preceding digital upstarts like Business Insider, which erected its own paywall.

The strategy appears to be working. By November 2014, the digital audience had grown 62% to 45.8 million monthly unique visitors. And by May 2020, The Post had notched 75 million total digital monthly unique visitors — more than direct competitors like USAToday.com and also a better showing than the viral news website BuzzFeed.

As it has increased its digital presence, The Post’s reporting has also maintained its integrity and reputation. The paper continues to be nominated for the Pulitzer Prizes and in 2020 a team from The Washington Post won a Pulitzer for its reporting on climate change. Bezos, who has been “hands off” according to The Post’s public editor, likely can’t take all of the credit for The Post’s success. Some of that credit must go to Baron, whose tenure has largely coincided with Bezos' time as owner of The Post.

“Marty was just the right editor for The Washington Post for the last eight years — thank God,” Donald E. Graham, a former publisher of The Post, told The New York Times earlier this year. “Marty is old-fashioned in the way he approaches the news. He believes in truthfulness and completeness and accuracy and fairness."

Erin Fuchs is deputy managing editor at Yahoo Finance.

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