Citizen Bezos: why does he want the Washington Post?

Aug 12, 2013
Charles Laurence

Amazon boss has felt the heat from newspapers in the past: now he's going to own one of the biggest

THE SALE of the Washington Post to Amazon co-founder and CEO Jeff Bezos has raised the question: who is this man and why would he want to own the paper?

He is determinedly enigmatic. That the sale of one of the world's best known newspapers to one of the world's best known capitalists – for a mere $250m - could have been kept a secret even from its own investigative reporters offers a pretty good example of his modus operandi.

Like many tech billionaires, Bezos, 49 and worth $28 billion at the last count, is a businessman of iron will wrapped in the trappings of the nerd. Like Bill Gates without the lop-sided glasses, he takes his fashion queues from Woody Allen: open neck shirt, khakis with brown rubber-soled shoes.

And like Allen, he has had a mixed relationship with the press. The business pages laud him for long-term thinking and patient investment strategies in an era of destructive obsession with quarterly profits and stock prices. He made the cover of Time magazine as Person of the Year.

But a negative side has been building for the last two years as reporters have become more interested in the lives of his workers rather than the size of his fortune.

It began with the story of the air-conditioning at the Amazon warehouses, the 'fulfillment centres' where strokes on the computer keyboards are turned into actual retail goods.

Bezos built his early warehouses (there are 69 worldwide) without air conditioning. The Morning Call, a local newspaper in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, where Amazon runs a warehouse not far from the old steel mills, observed that during a heatwave there would be ambulances lined up to ferry workers to the local emergency room as they collapsed with heatstroke.

"Workers interviewed said they were pushed to work at dizzying rates in brutal heat," the paper reported in 2011. "The heat index, a real-feel measure that considers heat and humidity, surpassed 100 degrees in the warehouse multiple times last year and sometimes exceeded 110, according to reports filed with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

"Work in the warehouse is physical, with many employees walking more than 10 miles per shift plucking items from shelves. Workers said those who didn't move at a sufficient pace faced termination. They said quotas were not reduced when temperatures soared."

In terms of design for processing of goods, Amazon's warehouses are renowned for high-tech efficiency. But worker productivity depends on high-speed stuffing of items into the emblematic brown Amazon delivery boxes, and low wages. The Morning Call reported that the company began handing out bottled water and ice-popsicles, but wages were docked if workers quit early.

The Seattle Times, which has had a major interest in the technology revolution as the home-town newspaper of both Microsoft and Amazon, took up the story last year. They sent reporters to one of Amazon's first 'fulfillment centres', in Kentucky.

"Early on, Bezos impressed the employees by taking time to work with warehouse crews during visits to the town," the Times reported. "But over time, said former workers at Campbellsville, production pressure from headquarters intensified amid constant turnover.

"As those tensions spilled onto the warehouse floor, Amazon gained a reputation as a difficult place to earn a living.

""There would be phone conferences [with Seattle], and all this screaming, about production numbers," said a former safety manager with oversight of the warehouse, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "That was always the problem; the production numbers weren't high enough. This was just a brutal place to work.""

The newspaper went on the produce a series on 'The Darker Side of Amazon', which included articles titled 'Examining Amazon's corporate practices', 'Amazon a virtual no show in hometown philanthropy', and 'States fight back against Amazon tax deals'.

Last year, Bezos found himself facing strikers. Some of them got on planes and flew to demonstrations held outside Amazon's annual general meeting. Suddenly, Amazon was being paired with Walmart and McDonald's, the most notorious of the breadline-wage payers. And, in a new phenomenon in America, it was under siege from low wage, non-union employees who have begun to fight back with strikes and picket lines.

Amazon workers and emergency room doctors filed complaints with health and safety authorities over warehouse conditions. This year, Amazon is spending $52 million to fit central air conditioning systems in its warehouses.

Along with his dress sense, Bezos shares with his fellow "tech" billionaires a philosophy of libertarian capitalism. He believes in social freedom, unregulated markets, and minimising his tax bills. He gives money to the gay marriage movement - and to the lobby opposing the introduction of income tax for high earners in Washington State.

Bezos famously wrote the Amazon business plan while driving from New Jersey, where he had had his flash of genius on the future of retail, to Seattle. The Supreme Court had just ruled that companies must pay tax only in states where they have a physical presence, rather than where they simply deliver cardboard boxes, and Washington's tax was among the lowest.

We may never have known about conditions endured by Amazon's warehouse workers but for the reporting of the Morning Call, an old-fashioned, small-circulation, printed newspaper.

Theories batted around in the past few days on his motives for buying the Washington Post run the gamut from wanting to experiment with digital newspaper publishing – Amazon did start with books – to wishing to boost its circulation into the millions by including a Post in every Amazon carton.

Or did Bezos learn a simple lesson from his brush with the Morning Call? He who owns the medium owns the message.

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