Jeff Bezos Hopes to Foster Innovation at the Washington Post – But Not Sure How

Amazon founder says he doesn’t have any instant solution, but promises period of experimentation.

Jeff Bezos said Tuesday he is committed to bringing back a “golden era” of journalism at the Washington Post, even as the paper’s soon-to-be owner admitted he has no magic bullet for stopping the declines in print journalism.

In an interview with the Post, Bezos said that he hoped to foster a spirit of bold and persistent experimentation over a period of years.

“In my experience, the way invention, innovation and change happen is [through] team effort,” he said. “There’s no lone genius who figures it all out and sends down the magic formula. You study, you debate, you brainstorm and the answers start to emerge. It takes time.”

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The Amazon founder stunned the media world when he agreed to plunk down $250 million last month for the storied paper, ending eight decades of ownership by the Graham family. He became the latest billionaire — following Red Sox owner John Henry’s purchase of the Boston Globe for $70 million this summer — who faces the daunting task of charting a digital course for a series of profit-challenged print products.

The Grahams were  hands-on leaders, but Bezos indicated that he will take a different approach. The Post will remain a separate and distinct company from Amazon, and Bezos will stay in Seattle, Washington where his e-commerce giant is based, instead of decamping for the nation’s capital.

Bezos said he is a lover of print in all its forms, but he astutely observed that the kind of investigative journalism that put the Post on the map in the Watergate era can be quickly re-purposed by aggregation sites. There’s no longer the same premium on breaking news that there was in the days of Woodward and Bernstein.

“Even behind a paywall, web sites can summarize your work and make it available for free. From a reader point of view, the reader has to ask, ‘Why should I pay you for all that journalistic effort when I can get it for free’ from another site?” Bezos asked. He did not have a ready answer.

Like many a once-proud media brand, the Post has been buffeted by subscriber defections and cuts in its newsroom staff. It has consistently lost money, bleeding tens of millions per year. In 2012, the newspaper division put up losses of  $53.7 million and the long-term trends continue to be gloomy.

So why buy a paper that some observers have fretted is entering its twilight years?

It was a question Bezos admitted he asked himself when the Washington Post’s Chairman Donald Graham approached him about a possible deal.

“I had to convince myself that I could bring something to the table,” Bezos said. “I discussed this at great length with Don. I thought I could, because I could offer runway and some skill in technology and the Internet and a point of view about long-term thinking, reader focus and the willingness to experiment.”