Jeff Bezos Isn’t Convinced That the Washington Post Can Survive on Payment Services

He also slams Trump and Peter Thiel

Jeff Bezos, Amazon chief and owner of the Washington Post, isn't sure that services like paywalls and tiered subscriptions can work for publishers.

During a wide-ranging panel at Vanity Fair's New Establishment Summit, Bezos talked about how he works with the Washington Post staff, as well as the tech giant's recent move into artificial intelligence and his thoughts on the presidential election. One of the most interesting nuggets in the conversation came out when Bezos talked about how the Washington Post plans to make money in the future. Despite running arguably the world's biggest ecommerce company, asking consumers to pay for content isn't a model that he's totally sold on.

"These things can change, but I don't see evidence yet that consumers are amenable to those kinds of micro-payments," Bezos told a packed room. "In the early days of music subscription services, consumers were not amenable to music subscriptions—they didn't want that, they wanted to buy it a la carte. Habits and behaviors and patterns of consumers do change slowly over time—maybe one day they will pay."

Bezos also said that he wants to move the Post from "making a relatively large amount of money per reader, having a relatively small number of readers—that was the traditional Post model for decades, [a] very successful model by the way," to, "a model where we make a very small amount of money per reader on a much, much larger number of readers."

Whether Bezos' vision means reducing the paper's ad load or changing new ad formats isn't clear, but he said that he thinks it will include a mixture of both ads and subscriptions. Over the past year, the Washington Post has experimented with a number of new ad products that seemingly fit the bill for Bezos' mandate. In May, the paper rolled out ads that have faster load times, for example. And last month, it started rolling out a mobile website that promises to load pages in less than a second.

In terms of his surprising move to get into the media business three years ago when he acquired the Washington Post, "I did zero due diligence," Bezos said. "I did not negotiate, I accepted the asking price. It couldn't have happened that way except for the person that I was dealing with was Don Graham, who I've known for 15 years and was the most honorable person."

According to Bezos, Graham—the then-owner of the paper—laid out every single problem as well as every great quality when making the deal. "I've owned the paper for a couple of years now and if anything, the warts are not as bad as he made them out to be and the things that are great about the Post are stronger than he made them out to be," he said.

He also compared the culture of the Post as, "swashbuckling, but they're like professional swashbucklers."

That said, Bezos is purposely hands-off with the paper's team. "This is a highly professionalized activity [and] we have people who have decades of experience doing it. I try to help at a much higher level than, 'should we cover this story or that story.'"

Artificial learning
Bezos talked a bit about Echo's artificial intelligence technology that uses deep learning to learn more about users' speech patterns, music preferences and more.

"The fact that it's always on, the fact that you can talk to it in an actual way removes a lot of barriers, a lot of friction—it's easier than taking your phone out of your pocket," Bezos said.

In one example of how AI is affecting bigger industries—like the food and grocery space—Bezos said that Amazon is using technology to grade the quality of strawberries for consumers who buy groceries through its Amazon Fresh program.

Lastly, Bezos briefly spoke about the presidential election, slamming Republican candidate Donald Trump, particularly for how he has handled being covered negatively by the press.

"One of the things that makes this country as amazing as it is, is that we are allowed to criticize and scrutinize our elective leaders," he said. "The appropriate thing for a presidential candidate to do is to say, 'I am running for the highest office in the most important country in the world. Please scrutinize me.' That's not what we've seen."

Last week, a report came out that tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel donated $1.25 million to Trump. Thiel is a member on Facebook's board, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg later defended him. When asked if he would do the same if Thiel was on his board, Bezos had a blunt message for Thiel.

"Peter Thiel is a contrarian. And you have to remember: Contrarians are usually wrong."