How Jeff Bezos Is Turning the Washington Post Into a Digitally Driven Publisher

Paper's executive editor talks aggregation, election coverage

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SAN FRANCISCO—When Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos took over the Washington Post in 2013, many wondered what a tech exec's leadership would look like at a 140-year-old newspaper.

But with a growing digital business and new practices in the newsroom, the Washington Post's executive editor, Martin Baron, talked about how the paper approaches its deep reporting—like having 20 reporters cover this year's presidential election—during a panel at Vanity Fair's New Establishment Summit.

"Jeff came in not only with financial power, but he came in with intellectual power and I think forced us to think more profoundly about how the internet changed the way that we deliver information to people," Barron said during an interview with Vanity Fair's special correspondent Sarah Ellison.

Baron said the paper talks to Bezos once every two weeks for about an hour, and one of the first things he did after buying the paper was getting the newsroom to think differently about aggregation and curation.

"One of the first things he talked to us about is, 'Look, you do these big, narrative stories. You do these deep investigations, and then some other media outlet in 15 minutes [has] rewritten your story, and they've grabbed your traffic. How are you going to think about that?' That's a hard question to answer," Baron said.

That conversation left Baron with the impression that Bezos' ownership "will not allow us to do the deep, narrative stories—but that's not what happened."

Instead, the paper started aggregating itself with staff members looking for parts of stories they could pick out and compile into one story. The publisher has also started aggregating from other news outlets. "People are doing it to us, and we have to do it to them," Baron said.

Still, Baron acknowledged he did get a little pushback from editorial staff. At first, the Washington Post created an overnight team to handle news aggregation.

"It's proved to be quite a success—there were a lot of stories that we were missing that people were talking about," Baron said. "We can't just sit there and complain about it. We actually have to do something about it."

At the same time, Bezos has encouraged Post staffers to pursue bigger projects, which has perhaps been most apparent during the coverage of this year's presidential election.

"He is very committed to this notion of shining a light in dark corners," Baron said.

In terms of coverage of Republican nominee Donald Trump, the Washington Post only gained access to Trump's campaign over the last couple of months after being kicked out during the primaries.

Baron recalled when Trump picked Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate, and a Washington Post reporter was kicked out of the event. "It was pretty bad," Baron said of the paper's relationship with Trump at the time. "It was a tense relationship, but that's the way it works."

Then, of course, it was the Washington Post that published the tape of a lewd conversation between Trump and TV personality Billy Bush from 2005. 

Baron also spoke about some of the lessons the paper and other major media outlets have learned in covering the election.

"If there's a failure on our part, it was that we did not detect the depth of grievance in certain parts of the country that led to Donald Trump in the first place—that was a failure on the part of most news outlets, including our own," Baron said. "That is not just focusing on those who are poor, not just focusing on the rich, not just focusing on the professional class, but focusing on, for lack of a better word, the working class."

@laurenjohnson Lauren Johnson is a senior technology editor for Adweek, where she specializes in covering mobile, social platforms and emerging tech.