Business

Trust him, he’s rich: The problem with believing in Jeff Bezos

Above: Jeff Bezos and the Kindle Fire HD

Image Credit: Jennifer Van Grove/VentureBeat

From what I understand, one of the best parts of being a Rich Man is that you can do whatever you want whenever you want to do it.

In the case of Amazon CEO (and super-billionaire) Jeff Bezos, doing what you want means plucking rocket parts from the ocean floor, investing millions in a 10,000-year clock, or most recently, buying an entire newspaper.

While Bezos’s decision to buy the Post was unexpected, the inevitable flood of speculation, commentary, hand-wringing, and starry-eyed prognostication about the move was not. Bezos could save The Washington Post or he could accelerate its demise, says everyone, all at once.

The conventional thinking, as I understand it, is that Bezos will be able to bring his Amazon-honed low-margin smarts to the world of newspapers, trimming the fat of inefficiency while infusing the 135-year-old newspaper with the spirit of the digital age. Bezos won’t just save The Washington Post, the thinking goes, but he could also pave the way for the news business’s eventual return to profitability. Jeff Bezos is from the Internet, after all. He knows things.

More than the purchase itself, it’s this eagerness to surrender to the supposed genius of Jeff Bezos that I find most interesting. That company he’s built and the fortune he’s amassed must have come from some deeper, more erudite understanding of how the world works, proponents surmise.

Not only is this Bezos-as-savior narrative dangerous, it’s also everywhere. Take this one example from newspaper veteran Ken Doctor:

Number one, he’s built — and continues to build — the company with a long-term perspective. He has long frustrated investors impatient with losses and meager profits, as revenues are plowed back into growing the business. That’s a long-term perspective the newspaper business needs more of.

Slate’s Farhad Manjoo writes in a similar vein:

But billionaires are a dime a dozen. Bezos’ real value to the Post—the reason that people in the media are both shocked and optimistic about this deal—isn’t what’s in his wallet. It’s what’s in his head. As a businessman, Bezos has three signature traits. He’s relentlessly focused on pleasing customers, even to the short-term detriment of his company’s bottom line. He’s uncommonly patient, willing to give good ideas years to play out before expecting a pay off. (That’s related to another trait—his ability to beguile markets into giving him carte blanche to do whatever he wants, even skate by on razor-thin profits indefinitely.) Most importantly, though, Bezos is fascinated by novel business models; he’s constantly on the hunt for new ways to sell groceries, cloud services, media, and everything else (see Amazon Prime, Web Services, etc.).

TechCrunch’s MG Siegler is also particularly effusive about Bezos’s business acumen, which he praises almost to the point of absurdity:

And so I repeat, Bezos is a genius. He’s flying under-the-radar until he can buy the radar. And probably the company that makes all the radars as well. With Amazon, it’s not “now or never”, it’s “next”.

This line of thinking is dangerous because while observers are placing a lot of confidence in Bezos, Bezos himself fully admits that he’s not quite sure what he wants to do with his latest toy. 

“I don’t want to imply that I have a worked-out plan. This will be uncharted terrain and it will require experimentation,” Bezos said earlier this week.

Fully thought-out his plan certainly is not.

None of which is to say that confidence in the Amazon CEO is completely misplaced. But the reality is that the uncertainty about the future of publishing is leading people to blindly trust whatever solution is most popularly appealing — whether its paywalls, native advertising, or in this case, a human being who has made his share of mistakes.

The veneration isn’t universal. As Reuters’ Felix Salmon points out, Bezos’s worship of hyper-efficiency likely won’t translate all that well to the world of journalism. Alec MacGillis at The New Republic also points out some potential downsides

Generally, the revere for Bezos reminds me a lot of the way many people treated the late Steve Jobs, another man well-known for wrapping the people around him in his reality-distortion field. Like Bezos and the Post, Jobs and the iPad were also supposed to “save” publishing. That didn’t happen, and it seems as if the publishing world is setting itself up for another round of disappointment with all the faith it’s putting in Jeff Bezos.

Does Bezos have all the answers? Probably not — but it’s certainly more comforting to believe he does.


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