Bezos built Fire phone for himselfBezos’s guiding principle for Amazon has always been to start with the needs and desires of the customer and work backward. But when it came to the Fire Phone, that customer apparently became Jeff Bezos. He envisioned a list of whiz-bang features, and the Tyto team started experimenting with a slew of promising technologies: near-field communication for contactless payments, hands-free interactions to allow users to navigate the interface through mid-air gestures, and a force-sensitive grip that could respond in different ways to various degrees of physical pressure. Perhaps most compelling was Dynamic Perspective, which uses cameras to track a user’s head and adjust the display to his or her vantage point, making the on-screen image appear three-dimensional.
Bezos: fail with reckless abandon or your company is deadAgain, one of my jobs is to encourage people to be bold. It’s incredibly hard. Experiments are, by their very nature, prone to failure. A few big successes compensate for dozens and dozens of things that didn’t work. Bold bets — Amazon Web Services, Kindle, Amazon Prime, our third-party seller business — all of those things are examples of bold bets that did work, and they pay for a lot of experiments. I’ve made billions of dollars of failures at Amazon.com. Literally billions of dollars of failures. You might remember Pets.com or Kosmo.com. It was like getting a root canal with no anesthesia. None of those things are fun. But they also don’t matter. What really matters is, companies that don’t continue to experiment, companies that don’t embrace failure, they eventually get in a desperate position where the only thing they can do is a Hail Mary bet at the very end of their corporate existence. Whereas companies that are making bets all along, even big bets, but not bet-the-company bets, prevail. I don’t believe in bet-the-company bets. That’s when you’re desperate. That’s the last thing you can do.
Bezos: books need to competeThe most important thing to observe is that books don’t just compete against books. Books compete against people reading blogs and news articles and playing video games and watching TV and going to see movies.Books are the competitive set for leisure time. It takes many hours to read a book. It’s a big commitment. If you narrow your field of view and only think about books competing against books, you make really bad decisions. What we really have to do, if we want a healthy culture of long-form reading, is to make books more accessible.
Without filtering by agents, publishers and stores, book ecosystem is bustedAt The Post, we’re getting about 150 books a day. A day. And these are books that had to find an agent. And then a publisher. And then were professionally edited. And now are being professionally marketed by people with money on the line. Many of these books, of course, are bad, but many — far more than we can review — are interesting, engaging, informative, moving, timely and/or newsworthy for various reasons. All the winnowing and editing work that went on before a galley ever arrives at our door make this job possible. The idea of dumping several hundred thousand additional books on our small staff every year is terrifying.
In 1963, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, an eighteen-year-old unicyclist and circus performer named Ted Jorgensen impregnated a sixteen-year-old high school sophomore named Jacklyn Gise. Their son Jeffrey was born on January 12, 1964. The new parents married but soon divorced. A few years later, as Stone recounts, Jackie met a Cuban-born oil engineer who went by Mike Bezos, and who was about to take up a stable if peripatetic career at Exxon. They married and moved to Houston; Mike adopted Jeff as his own. When he was ten, Jeff’s parents told him that Mike was not his biological father. Years later, he told Wired magazine that he learned the news about his father at the same time that he discovered that he needed glasses. “That made me cry,” he said.
Third, Amazon.com will be subcontracting the design and production of this smartphone. HTC is the most probable supplier. It stands to reason that whoever supplies Amazon.com never managed to dominate the smartphone market, so there's no reason to believe that they'll be able to do that while playing the part of an OEM.
But I would argue that a culture of secrecy is bound to end up harming the institution itself, especially when it’s firmly under the control of one leader, as Amazon is under Jeff Bezos. Without some permeability to the outside world, groupthink takes over, bad habits become entrenched, and a company, like a government, is slow to recognize problems that are apparent to everyone else. I saw this happening with American officials in Iraq, holed up in the Embassy in the middle of the Green Zone and beguiled by their own data points while the country outside spiraled down in flames. To Amazon, any piece of information could give its competitors an advantage. But what if those competitors’ main advantage is the walled-off, impenetrable nature of the company?
Comparing January 2014 department store sales to past Januaries indicates an even steeper decline: adjusted to 2013 dollars, department stores sold nearly $26.7 billion in January 1999, the highest January on record, compared to today’s $14.2 billion (in 2014 dollars).
At Amazon, original writing wasn’t even called “content.” It was known as “verbiage,” simplified to “verbage.” Amazon’s writers and editors formed a counterculture that never fit easily in a company ruled by computer engineers and M.B.A.s, who valued data most and believed only in measurable truths. “The key to understanding Amazon is the hiring process,” one former employee said. “You’re not hired to do a particular job—you’re hired to be an Amazonian. Lots of managers had to take the Myers-Briggs personality tests. Eighty per cent of them came in two or three similar categories, and Bezos is the same: introverted, detail-oriented, engineer-type personality. Not musicians, designers, salesmen. The vast majority fall within the same personality type—people who graduate at the top of their class at M.I.T. and have no idea what to say to a woman in a bar.”
Unlike Jobs, Bezos wasn’t a passionate listener: he once agreed to be interviewed for a program about the Beatles, and when employees, prepping the boss, asked him to name a favorite Beatles tune, Bezos chose “America,” by Simon & Garfunkel.
According to Politico’s Byers, Wonkblog gets more than four million page views a month. Traditionally, the Post’s site has been free: its main source of revenue is advertising. To be on the safe side, let’s say that it gets five million page views a month, and its over-all revenue per thousand pages viewed is twenty dollars—a number that is broadly in line with those of other successful Web sites. (Here I am combining the C.P.M.—the cost per thousand views for individual ads—and making an adjustment for unsold inventory.) That translates into revenues of a hundred thousand dollars per month, or $1.2 million a year.
Meanwhile, the Post, which for four years has benefited immensely from housing the Ezra Klein brand — Wonkblog averages more than four million page-views a month — will lose its star columnist and its claim to some of the most widely read policy analysis on the Internet.
What can Jeff Bezos do that the Grahams couldn’t? I personally believe there’s no magic bullet. If there were, someone would’ve found it, how to transform for the digital era. But we are in a great position. We have a credible brand, deeply engaged readers, [and we] cover Washington. And now we are owned by someone with deep pockets who cares what we do and is willing to invest for the long term.
At root, the tendency toward boring headlines flows from thinking of a newspaper as a bundle. Customers buy entire newspapers, not individual articles. So by the time the reader has opened a newspaper, he’s already a captive audience. That gives newspaper editors little reason to write flashy, eye-catching headlines. In contrast, people read online news one article at a time. Every article is competing with thousands of other articles for the reader’s attention.
Joy’s Law has a corollary for the news business: No matter how good your news organization is, most of the best journalism is being done somewhere else. That’s because no publication, even storied outlets such as the New York Times or The Washington Post, can hope to hire a majority of the world’s most talented journalists. And this is why the smartest readers have increasingly eschewed “bundled” news outlets in favor of third-party aggregators that provide them with links to the best news from around the Web.
“The problem is how do we get back to that glorious bundle that the paper did so well?” Bezos asked at a question-and-answer session with Post journalists. Bezos lauded the “daily ritual” of reading the morning newspaper over coffee. “That daily ritual is incredibly valuable, and I think on the Web so far, it’s gotten blown up.” But that daily ritual got blown up for good reason. Trying to recreate the “bundle” experience in Web or tablet form means working against the grain of how readers, especially younger readers, consume the news today. In the long run, it’s a recipe for an aging readership and slow growth.
Bezos said that the worst thing for a newspaper to do is to live in the past or become attached to a nostalgic view of its business or its role in the world: “The death knell for any business is to glorify the past,” as he put it. But in some ways, the Amazon founder seems to be doing exactly that himself, with his love of print and his focus on getting readers to pay for a bundle of news. Hopefully he has something more up his sleeve than just that.
“In industries that are being disrupted, 9 percent of companies make it,” he said. Of the 9 percent that made it, 100 percent had set up a separate disruptive business unit. Separate means: A separate physical location. Separate profit & loss. Separate direct sales. Separate content product and technology teams. Separate management structure.
Jeff will try to find a business model not for printed newspapers but for independent, public-spirited journalism. His DNA is digital; I wouldn’t expect him to relentlessly pursue a better method for applying black ink to dead trees or to be more efficient at the hiring of school kids to throw the morning paper into your bushes (sorry, David). Time and again, I heard him tell reporters: Amazon’s expertise is in technology, not in bricks-and-mortar -– the company would fail if it tried to open stores, just as traditional retailers flailed online. As in retailing, my bet is that Bezos will marry quality journalism with digital technology, embracing them fully on offense, not playing late-game, digital catch-up. The metric of his success will be online, not in ABC-audited circulation numbers.
Whether Bezos decides to make any of these changes to the Post remains to be seen — but I for one hope that he tries to implement at least one or two of them, because it would make for a fascinating experiment in building a truly next-generation digital newspaper.
He must also have imagined that he could gather the best minds at his disposal, from hotshot web designers and technical officers to accountants and efficiency troubleshooters, to try to find a way not just to save The Post, but to build and reinvent a premier national news organization that could survive even the destruction of its own industry.