Monday, August 05, 2013

Mr. Bezos buys a newspaper...and you know what happens next

Earlier today, The Washington Post Company announced that Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, has agreed to purchase The Washington Post and affiliated newspapers, along with the printing plant, for $250 million. The sale came as a shock, especially to many Post employees, who hadn't been told that the paper was for sale. For his part, Bezos said that the current publisher and executive editor will stay in their jobs, and that no layoffs are contemplated as a result of the transaction.

What, I wondered, would be the reaction of The New York Times, the "newspaper of record," the "Grey Lady"? The Times has run an increasingly shrill series of articles about Amazon, so I was interested in seeing how the newspaper handled the Washington Post story. As expected, the Times turned it into evidence of some sort of a nefarious scheme.

The Times gave the story to Nick Wingfield and David Streitfeld. I've written about Streitfeld previously, and called him a hack whose sole purpose at the Times seems to be doing hatchet jobs on Amazon. This evening's story did nothing to change my opinion of either his objectivity or his writing skill. The article--one of the biggest media stories of the year--has in it a total of two quotes: A generally laudatory one from Rob Glaser of RealNetworks, and the second from Dennis Johnson, who runs publisher Melville House and its blog Moby Lives. Mr. Johnson, whose negative position on Amazon is well-known in the book industry, has been Streitfeld's go-to source for negative quotes about the company. Here's a quote from the article:
Critics of Amazon were aghast at the news of The Washington Post purchase, saying it would further increase the power of a company and a tycoon they think already has too much of it. Although Mr. Bezos and not Amazon bought The Post, rivals and critics were already concerned that the newspaper’s work would be used to help Amazon. 
“It’s an old boring story — rich man buys a newspaper — but in this instance it’s one of the richest men ever buying one of the most important newspapers ever, which is the one our government leaders read first thing every morning,” said Dennis Johnson, the co-founder of Melville House, a well-regarded small publisher. “This is the capper in the development of one of the most powerful vertical monopolies in our history, which is also one of the most controlling in matters of cultural concern.”
It doesn't take a trained journalist to see how "over the top" Johnson's quote is. (For example, for the record, Jeff Bezos ranks 16th on Bloomberg's Billionaires list, behind Warren Buffet (who's actively buying newspapers,) the Koch Brothers (who are rumored to be interested in buying some or all of Tribune's newspapers,) and the Walton family heirs (whose Walmart has been accused of its share of sharp practices,) among others.) Johnson sees a conspiracy under Amazon's rock--but I don't recall him reacting the same way when Barnes & Noble and Borders divided up the retail bookstore business and caused literally thousands of independent bookstores to go out of business. Incidentally, his books continue to be on sale at Amazon.

That leads me to wonder: Why does the Times have it in so badly for Amazon? There are other companies that sell online without collecting sales tax. There are others that have pushed their suppliers around to get preferential pricing, terms and conditions. There are others that are more dominant in their industries than Amazon is. There are others that have been accused of poor working conditions in their factories and warehouses. Is the Times trying to curry favor with one of Amazon's competitors? Is it getting payback for a business deal gone wrong? From where I sit, it's impossible to know.
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