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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

What Does Northport Think About the Sale of the Washington Post to the Online Behemoth?

It's big news, Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post. I asked a few of my friends for their thoughts, many of them writers, and here are the responses:

A retired community college teacher, fiction writer, and (clearly) someone very careful with words: “This is a paradigm shift indeed.”

A career fiction writer: “Well, as [a mutual friend] said after I sent the email about Amazon trying to control the book business: ‘Well, they do call themselves Amazon, after all.’  Is this getting scary or what?”

Another fiction writer: “When you control all the media you will control the thoughts of a people.  Sad news for every American.”

A retired newspaper writer: “I think people are correct to be nervous, but he is a smart businessman and when he talks about giving readers what they want, my heart soars because for years newspapers have been giving readers what bores and confuses and annoys them – even the smart ones who WANT insight and analysis. And, if he can charge for news online in a way that makes sense – that will be the beginning of the turnaround for news organizations.”

Retired public school teacher: “Certainly true – ‘The Post will mine data about its readers in ways not seen before in the newspaper world.’ I wonder what that means for the paper, its reporters, its readership. We don’t read a newspaper any more, except for my brief online viewing. (The local paper is still free online.) I get too much news from CNN and take complete breaks now and then. Most of what we hear is depressing or silly or just plain mean, it often seems to me. All the sides of “big” stories have their own facts, and it’s hard to know what to believe.  We’re currently watching ‘House of Cards’ on Netflix, and I’m completely skeptical of the whole political system and journalism industry. I’m also unhappy with the education system (at least around here) – so books are a welcome relief. So is yoga.”

Retired state employee (not teacher): “Not sure.  Certainly it will make the Post an e-business but that will probably help keep it alive.  More likely it will go off to the right and give him a ton more leverage on Government than he has already.  But, that's normal now where buying influence is the norm.  Wow, it's still morning but my cynical button is already pushed in.”

Retired university professor of history: “In recent years, visits to DC and via other links regarding this once great newspaper, I felt it was increasingly stogy, predictable, though reliable in a sturdy way (esp when Catherine Graham ran things with an amazing deft touch). Though the editorial page kept up, more or less, competitive with the NY Times (Sunday), the Post seemed almost dead in the water as the winds of change blew harder (pardon the allusion). [A friend] was so put off, after taking it daily for 4 decades, that he got his news on line from the NY Times. I think that, like most literate Washingtonians, he will keep a close eye on what comes.  I more or less felt among 'friends' vis the Post, but a great news system has to be up front and OUT front not therapeutic, not calming the herd, but leading it, like a wolf pack, out front. It was like that in the 70s . . . . When a major organ like this is merely transmitting the canon, the nation is not well served.”

The last reply deals with the newspaper as it has been in recent years, rather than with the sale. A retired law professor had a lot to say, but he said in person, and I neglected to take notes. Also, it would be interesting to hear what some younger people think, so if by some miracle any young person's eyes fall upon this post, please feel free to leave a comment. 

So what does this small bookseller blogger think?

One observation made on Facebook was “He knows how to sell things.” My reaction to that was, That isn’t all he knows. Right off the top of my head I can think of four big additional areas of his knowledge. He knows: (1) how to stomp out competition; (2) how to beat out unions; (3) how to manipulate government, at every level, to his benefit (see first and second points) and to his competition’s detriment; (4) how to keep running on investors’ money despite recent surprising and spectacular losses. (That link is worth following to read the article.) Interesting, isn’t it?

Does your idea of a free press include many competing viewpoints? Do you think we have that now and/or what would encourage it? Are you comfortable with falling wages and salaries? (Have unions encouraged workers to expect too much?) Should reportage and government be bought and sold, subject only to market forces? (Have they always been for sale?) What about more and more people putting their eggs in a single basket – something like Dutch tulip bulbs? Will there really be a big payoff eventually for all investors – and are you on the bandwagon?

Although most people probably do not think of him primarily as Aristotle’s pupil, Alexander the Great is a familiar name worldwide. Did he truly weep when he had “no more worlds to conquer” or upon being told that the number of worlds was infinite – and therefore, presumably, beyond his insatiable reach? What price did Alexander pay for temporarily gaining [most of] the world? Would you pay such a price? Who else paid heavily? Here is a quick biography of his life and accomplishments. Like Molly Malone, in the end he died of a fever, and no one could save him. In the long run, no one gets out of life alive.

The least ambitious goal of any business, I suppose, would be simply to survive, to stay alive, forever struggling, while the most ambitious (here the word ‘overweening’ comes to my mind) would be to take over the entire world. Between these two extremes (and no, whatever you imagine of my bookstore, I do not fall at the absolute bottom of the scale) we can imagine a wide range of possibilities of flourishing (to use one of Aristotle’s favorite ideas), each step up in profitability matched by an increase in complexity and responsibility. Hmmm. Lots to think about there....

Moving along, though, it baffles me how the same people who fear a “single payer” for, say, health care, when the proposed payer is the federal government, have no fear of a “single seller,” however wide that seller casts his product net. Data mining? Terrifying and un-American if done by government! Done by a mammoth corporation? Okay? Really? How so?
Many Americans fear a government takeover of business. I fear a corporate takeover of government. Which direction are we headed? (Your answer might be that I have posed a false dilemma. If so, explain!) More specifically do you have concerns about the sale of the Washington Post, or do you see it as probably a positive change? Whatever you think, what are your reasons?

Someday soon I hope to write about short stories, both in general and as exemplified in some particularly good collections, but we read all kinds of things here Up North, including national newspapers.


BB-Idaho said...

I read somewhere in bloggerland that the Amazon prodigy was a big
Democrat supporter, the gist being his newspaper ownership might prove a small counter to the Murdoch empire. Since I have never bought anything at Amazon, nor read the WAPO, am just passing on unqualified scuttlebutt.

valerie said...

You've cut straight to the chase on the subject of Amazon and your questions are vital ones. Bravo!

dmarks said...

I've seen it reported that the sale is not to Amazon, but to Bezos, who will not merge the two.

Now, after reading these comments, I wonder if it is true that they will be separate.

BB: I tried to find out how many newspapers Murdoch owns in the US. The closest I could find was something on HuffPo that he owned very few papers: a tiny fraction of the total I found of 1,400 daily newspapers in the US in 2011.

BB-Idaho said...

dmarks, re-Murdoch holdings:

TV: Fox Broadcasting Company, Fox News Channel, Fox Kids Channel, Fox Business Network, Fox Classics, Fox Sports Net, FX, the National Geographic Channel, The Golf Channel, TV Guide Channel

Radio: Fox Sports Radio Network

Books: HarperCollins (which publishes JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Lemony Snicket, JG Ballard, and Neil Gaiman)

Magazines: TV Guide, The Weekly Standard, Maximum Golf, Barron's Magazine

Newspapers: The New York Post, Wall Street Journal, The Times (UK), The Sun (UK), The Australian (AU), The Herald Sun (AU), The Advertiser (AU)

Websites:, Hulu (part ownership),, The Daily

Film studios: 20th Century Fox (Avatar, The Simpsons, Star Wars, X-Men, Die Hard, Night at the Museum), Fox Searchlight (Slumdog Millionaire, Juno, 127 Hours, Black Swan, Little Miss Sunshine)

Sports (part ownership): Los Angeles Lakers, Colorado Rockies, Australia and New Zealand's National Rugby League