By/di Beppe Severgnini
Italian original: Jeff B e la carpa che canta http://bit.ly/13LZSU7
Why would a sane person buy a newspaper that has been losing money for seven consecutive years? To look good, but it would be an expensive whim. To show off – this would be an old- fashioned vice. Or someone could do it because they want to do something with it. Those who know Jeff Bezos have no doubts. If he bought The Washington Post it’s because he wants to do something with it.
What, we still don’t know. But Bezos is unconventional and intuitive; and he remains an American businessman, cautious, analytical, malleable with customers and hard with competitors, unwilling to waste time and money. The history of Amazon confirms this: Bezos can lose money today to make money tomorrow; he’s not willing to lose money today and tomorrow. His specialty is in selling and delivering, in a new and simple way. He doesn’t write books, he distributes them (on paper or Kindle); he doesn’t build smartphones, he offers them; he doesn’t produce movies, he sells them on DVD and streaming; he doesn’t build cabinets where you can store your purchases, he offers Amazon Cloud Drive.
What he will do with a newspaper – and what a newspaper! – no one knows. Bezos foresees that “printed newspapers will no longer be common in twenty years”- an easy prediction also for us journalists, if we could only clear our heads of romance, selfishness and autobiographies – but he decided to buy The Washington Post, a symbolic masthead, the daily of the world’s political capital. He wrote to reporters: “There will certainly be changes in the years to come. This is crucial, and it would have happened with or without a new owner.” He then added: “The Internet is transforming the news business, by eroding sources of income that have been reliable for a long time and by allowing the appearance of new forms of competition, some of which lower or even cancel the costs related to collecting news. There are no designated routes, and outlining a trail to follow in the future won’t be easy. We will need to be inventive, and so we will need to experiment.”
Inventing, experimenting, waiting: three things that Jeff Bezos has shown he’s capable of doing. The man should not be underestimated. Behind that elfish look and that shocking laugh – Newsweek has compared it to the “screeching of a flock of ducks on hallucinogens” – there’s a calculator. Jeff B didn’t invent PCs, he didn’t invent smartphones, he didn’t invent tablets. However, he has created formidable functions that pass through these tools. Functions for ordering, paying and distributing. Nothing helps you, if you don’t get it. “One-click” – buying with a single click, after having chosen a product – is the brilliant exploitation of commercial impulsivity, patented and worth fighting for tooth and nail. Perhaps a newspaper might also invent something of the kind.
Jeff Bezos certainly doesn’t want to create a new daily; he knows, however, that it will have to be reinvented, packaged and distributed effectively. In an interview with Il Corriere, three years ago, he said: “No technology lasts forever. Paper has endured five hundred years. It’s already an incredible success.” On Monday he wrote to the journalists at The Washington Post: “Journalism is not dead.” But we have to sell it, he might have added, and make sure that someone will buy it.
Bezos is obsessed – literally – with quality of the service. “Customers rule!”, he scribbled as a dedication on a biography about him. On Monday he explained: “The main duty of the Post will continue to be to satisfy its readers, and not the private interests of its owners. We will continue to follow the truth wherever it may lead us, and we will continue to work hard to not make any mistakes.” Three years ago, in an interview with Il Corriere, he said: “Sure, you have to be careful about competitors. If they throw stones at you, just put your head down and concentrate on your customers. (…) Yes, at Amazon we’re still terrified of customers. Because customers will be faithful to us until the moment when a competitor will offer a better service. A little fear is good.”
You might say: did you buy a newspaper? Welcome to the world of fear, engineer Bezos. But maybe he would answer with another sentence from the same interview: “I feel around a new sensation. A kind of trepidation, the overall impression they were facing immense possibilities. We are in the second renaissance of the Internet. This reminds me of the period 1997-98, when everyone was making experiments. Today it is the same atmosphere. Mobile devices, social networks, everything is flowing, there is energy around. “
Jeff B is definitely optimistic and definitely rich: he’s in eleventh position in the list of the 400 wealthiest individuals in the United States, with assets amounting to 25.8 billion dollars (19.5 billion euros). Jeff B is quite eccentric: he fills his pockets just like Eta Beta and pours the contents on the table, under the eyes of bewildered interlocutors. Jeff B is politically committed: he has contributed significantly to the referendum campaign for same-sex marriage in Washington State. Jeff B is curious: in Milan, in 2011, he was asking a lot of questions about Silvio Berlusconi, which isn’t strange; the strange thing is that he remained attentive and quietly listened to the answers.
Jeff Bezos is unusual to the point of being bizarre: he has invested millions in a company dedicated to space travel, he funded and participated in the recovery of an engine form Apollo 11 off the Florida coast, he contributed to the construction of a clock that will mark the time for ten thousand years. Jeff B cultivates good relations: he’s a capitalist, not an ascetic, and enjoys the hangouts of the rich and powerful (Sun Valley, Davos). Jeff B is fairly vain and witty enough to admit it. I asked him a while back: they made a movie about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, The Social Network. What if they made one about Jeff Bezos and Amazon? “As long as my part is played by Brad Pitt,” he replied.
But most of all, Jeff B is an American, confident, brave and creative. He was born in New Mexico from a 17 year old mother, and, just like Steve Jobs, has never met his biological father and took the name of his adoptive father. He attended high school in Miami, graduated with honors in electrical engineering and computer science at Princeton; he took his first job in New York, in finance: while studying e-commerce, he realized that it was easy to sell books online. He left his job, drove to Seattle and settled in Bellevue, a suburb of Seattle on Lake Washington, where he still lives. His first headquarters was in the garage, the incubator of American dreams, from Bill Gates to Steve Jobs, to Jeff Bezos. Because the man belongs to this category, to which we can add Page and Brin (Google), Zuckerberg (Facebook), Dorsey (Twitter): people who did not create just a business, but a social paradigm.
I met him for the first time in Seattle in 2000, thanks to my friend Diego Piacentini, who went to work with him and now manages the group’s international operations. The meeting took place in Amazon’s former headquarters, a red brick former hospital high on top of a hill. Leaving, Jeff Bezos gave me a plastic carp mounted on a wood panel, explaining that it was one of Amazon.com’s best-selling items. I still have it. By pressing a button, the fish turns its head and sings in a baritone voice, “Don’t worry, be happy.”
If it was advice to journalists, we should listen to it. You’ll never win, if you fight the future. The carp didn’t say this, Jeff Bezos did. Both of them seem to know which way the current flows.
Translation: Alexia Villa