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Future of Print Journalism? Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post Purchase Spurs Questions

Amazon patriarch purchased publication for $250 million, less than 1% of his net worth

Around the time “Man of Steel” opened in June, media watcher Jim Romenesko circulated an it-only-hurts-when-you-laugh letter explaining why Superman’s alter ego Clark Kent was having his application rejected to become a reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper.

As it turns out, salvation for Clark Kent’s journalistic aspirations might require him to go to work for Batman, a.k.a. billionaire industrialist Bruce Wayne, whose philanthropic tendencies might occasionally obscure what could be construed as darker (or at least ulterior) motives.

The announcement that billionaire Jeff Bezos is buying the Washington Post — for $250 million, less than 1% of the Amazon patriarch’s net worth — set off a predictable flurry of front-page coverage and angst-ridden analysis. Compared to, say, the local saw mill being sold, you can file this one under the heading of stories that newspaper editors care about a lot more than their readers, for obvious reasons.

For the struggling newspaper industry, the romantic lure of the benevolent billionaire has clear underpinnings. Newspapers can still be a profitable business, the theory goes, and perhaps even still manage to accomplish some public good, if freed from the tyranny of the quarterly-profit imperative at publicly traded companies and allowed to pursue modest returns under enlightened private ownership.

Moreover, the super-rich have exhibited what appears to be a heightened interest in newspapers, including the recent sale of the Boston Globe to billionaire investor John Henry — who also happens to own baseball’s Boston Red Sox — and Warren Buffett’s acquisition of several smaller publications.

“If it wasn’t clear that newspapers have become trophies for the wealthy with an interest in journalism or power — or a combination of both — it should be now,” wrote New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin.

Yet the lingering fear is that while journalists dream of finding a Bruce Wayne — or in the case of the Los Angeles Times, an Eli Broad or David Geffen — they might wind up under the thumb of a Lex Luthor or some Bondian villain, eager to use these shiny new toys to pursue nefarious goals and world domination.

That’s always been suspected of Rupert Murdoch, who has made little secret of the glee he derives from his newspaper properties, yielding benefits that go far beyond what they deliver to his balance sheet. It took the phone-hacking scandal at outlets in the U.K. to prod the mogul to spin his print-grounded holdings off as a separate entity from his entertainment assets, and even then, he couldn’t bring himself to completely part with them.

More recently, word that the Koch brothers — well known for their conservative activism and backing of so-called astroturf groups, which appear to be grassroots organizations but are often backed by wealthy benefactors — were circling media properties, including the Tribune newspapers, triggered renewed hand-wringing. The mere rumor that the oil and gas barons harbored interest in the Times prompted Courage Campaign, a California-based progressive organization, to vigorously begin lobbying against such a transaction.

Under this logic, what good is it if the press survives, financially speaking, should the tradeoff involve becoming mouthpieces for moguls intent on acquiring media strictly to level what they perceive as an unequal playing field with left-leaning news outlets?

Bezos doesn’t fit that profile, but he does have disparate interests that could be advanced through the Post. And his decision to stay mostly mum regarding the sale — initially eschewing interviews, other than an open letter to staff pledging “the values of The Post do not need changing” — left the door open for speculation.

Still, given the wrenching changes and widespread layoffs that have strafed their industry, journalists find themselves in beggars-can’t-be-choosers mode. And Bezos comes armed not only with deep pockets but an established presence in the digital world that has reshaped newspapers — much like, it seems only fair to note, Jay Penske, whose company acquired Variety last year.

Thus far, anyway, the Bezos-Post deal has been greeted in journalistic circles with suspicion, but also a rare note of optimism. Then again, once you’re in need of being rescued, it’s a little late to start worrying about the color of your potential savior’s hat — or cape.

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