Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos surprised just about everyone on Monday with the announcement that he was buying The Washington Post, one of America’s most respected, yet financially struggling newspapers. Bezos, 49, has shown little interest in the news business before, devoting his time and energy to personal passions like space travel and building a clock in the Texas desert.
His Post acquisition raises an interesting question: Can a successful entrepreneur like Bezos ably take the helm of any business and make it profitable? Or is it risky to assume his enormous success running an e-commerce giant like Amazon will naturally translate into triumph in the media business?
It’s certainly not the first time such question has been broached. When billionaire real-estate investor Sam Zell bought The Chicago Tribune and other Tribune Co. newspapers in 2007, many media pundits questioned whether he had enough understanding of and passion for newspapers to pull off a turnaround. The company later filed for bankruptcy protection, and Zell blamed the bad economy.
When former Pepsi CEO John Sculley famously took over Apple in the 1980s, the company floundered and founder and computer guru Steve Jobs eventually returned.
But Bezos hails from a unique background that may give him unique advantage when it comes to running the Washington Post. Even though he’s never worked in newspapers, he has built a hugely profitable company that sells, among just about everything under the sun, Amazon’s Kindle e-readers that can used to download and read newspapers. He knows how to make money off the Internet—something any newspaper these days needs to understand, yet so many don’t. Moreover, he’s close friends with Washington Post Co. CEO Donald Graham, who will surely help him transition into running the Graham family’s prized publication.
The question is really a fundamental one that gets to the heart of entrepreneurship: How much depends on the skills and industry knowledge you develop during your lifetime, and how much depends on sheer entrepreneurial instinct, drive and business know-how? That’s a question the world will be watching Bezos to answer.
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