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Challenges face Bezos as he buys Washington Post

Tuesday - 8/6/2013, 6:12pm  ET

FILE - In this May 7, 1973, file photo, reporters Bob Woodward, right, and Carl Bernstein, whose reporting of the Watergate case won them a Pulitzer Prize, sit in the newsroom of the Washington Post in Washington. On Monday, Aug. 5, 2013, the Washington Post announced the paper has been sold to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. One of key dates in the history of The Washington Post was when the Post began reporting on the break-in at the Democratic National Committee's offices at Washington's Watergate hotel. (AP Photo)

Discussing Washington Post future over scrambled eggs

WTOP's Kristi King reports.

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RYAN NAKASHIMA
AP Business Writer

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Jeff Bezos turned selling books online into a multibillion-dollar business that has changed retailing forever. Many are now anxious to see if Bezos can do the same for the media industry, after the Amazon.com founder announced he is buying The Washington Post and other newspapers for $250 million.

Monday's news of the sale to the 49-year-old pioneer of Internet commerce came as a shock to observers, many of whom thought the Graham family would never sell. It also sparked hope among the ranks of reporters beset by seemingly endless cutbacks.

Among his champions are the members of the family selling the paper, including publisher Katharine Weymouth, who promised to stay on as publisher.

As some journalists shed tears, others expressed optimism.

"Jeff Bezos seems to me exactly the kind of inventive and innovative choice needed to bring about a recommitment to great journalism," said Carl Bernstein, whose co-reporting of the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s cemented the newspaper's identity as a political watchdog.

But The Post, like most newspapers, has been losing readers and advertisers to the Internet while watching its value plummet. The paper has cut its newsroom staff repeatedly in recent years and closed several bureaus.

Many see Bezos, whose fortune was valued at $25 billion by Forbes magazine, as being rich enough to sustain the losses the newspaper will likely face over the next few years.

Bezos is buying the newspaper as an individual. Amazon.com Inc. is not involved.

Bezos said to Post employees in a letter distributed to the media that he'd be keeping his "day job" as Amazon CEO and a life in "the other Washington" where Amazon's headquarters are based in Seattle.

But he made clear there would be changes, if unforeseen ones, coming.

"The Internet is transforming almost every element of the news business: shortening news cycles, eroding long-reliable revenue sources, and enabling new kinds of competition, some of which bear little or no news-gathering costs," Bezos wrote. "There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy. We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment."

Washington Post Co. chairman and CEO Donald Graham called Bezos a "uniquely good new owner." He said the decision was made after years of newspaper industry challenges. The company, which will continue to own the Kaplan college and test preparation business along with six TV stations, will change its name but didn't say what it will be.

Bezos said in a statement that he understands the Post's "critical role" in Washington and said its values won't change.

"The paper's duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners," Bezos said in his letter to Post employees.

He said he would follow in the footsteps of longtime publisher Katharine Graham, who died in 2001, in pursuing the truth and following important stories, "no matter the cost."

"While I hope no one ever threatens to put one of my body parts through a wringer, if they do, thanks to Mrs. Graham's example, I'll be ready," he wrote.

Weymouth, the newspaper's publisher and CEO and a member of the Graham family that has owned the newspaper since 1933, will remain in her post. She has asked other senior managers to stay on as well.

"Mr. Bezos knows as well as anyone the opportunities that come with revolutionary technology when we understand how to make the most of it," she said in a letter to readers. "Under his ownership and with his management savvy, we will be able to accelerate the pace and quality of innovation."

The news surprised industry observers and even the newspaper's employees.

"I think we're all still in shock," said Robert McCartney, one of the newspaper's Metro columnists and a 31-year veteran. "Everybody's standing around the newsroom talking about it. ... I don't think much work's getting done."

An email hit staffers' inboxes at 4:17 p.m. EDT. It summoned them to a meeting 13 minutes later.

Graham spoke at the staff meeting of how he has known Bezos for more than a decade, and described him as a decent and patient man, said McCartney.

Graham told the staff he is convinced Bezos is committed to quality journalism and has no political agenda. There was a long standing ovation from the staff after Graham and Weymouth's remarks.

"Hard to imagine the Post without the Grahams," wrote East Asia Correspondent Chico Harlan in a tweet. "Don emailed his writers, knew their names."

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