The Great Improvisation: Jeff Bezos, Duke Ellington and the Washington Post

I’ve been listening today to Duke Ellington’s “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.” It’s a track that I’ve been saving all summer, recommended by Tom Stites who passed the album along with the advice that I play it before reading anything, then read the liner notes, then listen again.

Others recommended this track, too, so I had some sense of what I was listening for: the moment when a woman disrupts the performance by dancing, sending Paul Gonsalves on the tenor saxophone to 27 straight choruses, changing the mood, the jazz, the audience permanently.

I thought of this track this morning as I reflected on the sale of the Washington Post to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, an outsider, off stage, suddenly shaping and changing how one of America’s most iconic newsrooms is playing.

Just as that moment at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956 was a pivotal moment for jazz, the sale of the Washington Post is a pivotal moment for journalism. It is the moment in which we realize how actions off stage connect deeply to what happens on stage. How outsiders can become insiders. How disruption– from a single dancer or billionaire buyer– can change the future.

Part of what is so magical about the live recording of “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” is that when you listen to the recording you hear the moment when the Ellington’s band notices the woman dancing. You hear it because they start playing differently. The musicians are the same. The instruments are the same. The song is the same. But there is new energy, new sound, and new possibility.

And this is what the sale of the Washington Post to Jeff Bezos brings us.

The sale isn’t just about the end of one era in family-business publishing, or about the end of a golden age of Washington news reporting, but about the launch into the possibility of something new. Something that builds on the foundational beat that is already there, but changes it, makes it different, and creates a new future.

It’s as widely evident now as it has been for the past several years that the Washington Post needs to change.

Writing for the New Yorker, David Remnick wrote of the sale yesterday:

After talking with the board of directors, Donald Graham quietly began looking for a potential buyer around Christmas of 2012. “We were in our seventh consecutive year of declining revenues, and there was the question of, What could we do?” Graham told me. The company had bought Slate and Foreign Policy (and is holding on to them) and sold Newsweek (which changed hands again this weekend). “Our strategy had been to innovate like hell in digital and other businesses and offset the declines in print revenues. But Katharine said the declines were going to go on, for the eighth and ninth straight years. And so …”

The trends were violent and undeniable. Graham and Weymouth saw circulation drop from 832,332 average subscribers, in 1993, to 474,767. The newsroom staff was once more than a thousand; it is now around six hundred and forty.

Bezos, off stage and not in any way previously connected to the news business, disrupts this.

Emily Bell, in writing for The Guardian, perhaps said it best yesterday when she wrote that Bezos’ purchase:

…is the first newspaper purchase in over a decade that has shaken American journalism out of its sleepwalk to oblivion, and made the wires hum with something other than bad news. Has this changed the narrative of inevitable decline?

At the end of a week that saw the Boston Globe sold for $70m by the New York Times Company, to Red Sox owner John W Henry, it seems that the lock gates transferring newspapers from a gilded past, through an unsustainable present, to to an unknown future have creaked open. Newspapers are now restored to their former status as playthings of the rich, rather than market-driven profit centers.

Silicon Valley is full of middle-aged men who, a dozen years ago, proved they could make the impossible come true. With his penchant for 10,000-year clocks and a reputation built on long-term strategy, Bezos might be embarking on the project that most tests his patience. But if he can really mold something transformational out of old media with his new money, he will have beaten bigger odds in a more spectacular style than any he has so far faced.

Similarly, James Fallows at The Atlantic wrote:

…let us hope that this is what the sale signifies: the beginning of a phase in which this Gilded Age’s major beneficiaries re-invest in the infrastructure of our public intelligence. We hope it marks a beginning, because we know it marks an end.

After spending the day with Ellington, though, I think there is no option but for this to be a beginning. The dancing has already begun. The music has already changed. Even Washington reporters seemed, though shocked, generally optimistic about Bezos.

Wrote Erik Wemple in the Washington Post:

Bezos has the look of an energetic newspaper owner who’ll write clever and spot-on memos; who’ll surely bring some digital tricks to this trade; and who’ll pack along his ultra-competitive spirit, a fabulous commodity in the newspaper business…Should Bezos succeed in even tweaking this sector’s vicious cycle, his contributions to retailing and e-commerce may well look like modest achievements.

And, via Romenesko, former Post media writer Frank Ahrens shared:

My dear friends and former colleagues at The Post: For the first time in many years, I am not pessimistic about The Post’s future. You are, and have been for some time, an Internet business, not a newspaper business. The Post has moved beyond The Post Co.’s core competency to manage and grow it. It had become a drag on shareholder value, which is and should be Don Graham’s first duty. In order for The Post to have a future, it must be owned by someone like Bezos, a masterful Internet businessman. Bezos’s greatest strength may be his customer management skills, vital to your enterprise. I’m guessing the biggest day-to-day disruption of employee duties will come on The Post’s business side, not in its newsroom. After a lifetime of benevolent ownership, this sale is Don’s last great gift to you. He gave you a fighting chance.

It’s unclear what, exactly, Bezos brings to media at this point. But this change in tune, from our news industry’s deep collective funk of a depression to a hopeful, once again lively note, can only be read as the most sincere welcome and we can only hope that his presence here is as electrifying for journalism as that dancer’s was for jazz.

In the video below (posted at the end of this piece), the narrator describes Ellington’s state going into the Newport performance, saying:

Despite his near universal fame, by the mid-1950′s Duke Ellington was in trouble. Some of his finest musicians had left him. Rumors flew that he could no longer afford to stay on the road. He admitted to a reporter that “our band is operating at a loss now.”

Things were so bad that, for the first time ever, Ellington gave his musicians a pep-talk before the performance.

But that night, that performance, and that dancer changed everything.

Trumpeter Clark Terry years later described the moment of change saying:

And as it began to build some gorgeous voluptuous lady in the audience decided that she was being moved to the point that she could no longer contain herself. So she jumped up on the stage and started to, allowing herself to be flounced around a bit. And Ellington kind of enjoyed that and it inspired him and he in turn inspired the band and the band was.. Sam Woodyard was the drummer and he started pounding a little heavier so things begin to build up to a real frenzy.

The video goes on to say that the recording of that performance was a run-away hit, selling more copies than any other Ellington album and allowing the band to work more, earn more, and play more.

Bezos could be primed to usher journalism into a similar new moment.

In a letter to Post employees yesterday he wrote:

The Internet is transforming almost every element of the news business: shortening news cycles, eroding long-reliable revenue sources, and enabling new kinds of competition, some of which bear little or no news-gathering costs. There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy. We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment. Our touchstone will be readers, understanding what they care about – government, local leaders, restaurant openings, scout troops, businesses, charities, governors, sports – and working backwards from there. I’m excited and optimistic about the opportunity for invention.

This, to me, sounds like the beginning of the dance.

3 thoughts on “The Great Improvisation: Jeff Bezos, Duke Ellington and the Washington Post

  1. jing wang

    Hi, I truly enjoyed your piece “the Great Improvisation.” But you didn’t leave the author’s name. I searched for it in “About Me,” and still couldn’t find it. I am writing an article and would like to quote you.

  2. Michael Rodman


    When I first read this I didn’t realize you wrote it. It is an impressive article. I sent it to several friends in the DC area and they are all equally impressed! Your observations are fascinating and the combination of the printed word and the video works so well. Brilliant! (Can you tell I liked the piece? LOL)

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