The Washington Post was headed for bankruptcy, and was finally sold for a pittance. Its buyer began his career on Wall Street, only to move into a burgeoning new industry, where he truly made his wealth. The newspaper he bought has a noble history, but will certainly earn losses for years to come.
I’m talking not about Jeff Bezos, who bought the Washington Post yesterday, but rather Eugene Meyer, who bought the Post in 1933. Meyer left a lucrative career on Wall Street in 1920 to seize the burgeoning opportunity in industrial chemicals and founded Allied Chemical (today’s Honeywell).1 After making millions, Meyer spent the rest of his life both in public service and building the Post, spending millions of his own money in the process.
Meyer was in many ways following the established playbook for industrial magnates. Families like the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and Carnegies, who made their fortunes in railroads, oil, and steel, respectively, plowed money into universities, museums, and a host of other cultural touchstones.
It’s this tradition that makes Bezos’s purchase feel momentous, a crossing of the Rubicon of sorts. The tech industry is now producing its own magnates, who are following the Rockefeller playbook. See Mark Zuckerberg giving $100 million to the Newark school district, or Chris Hughes buying the New Republic. Neither though, feels as momentous as Jeff Bezos, the preeminent tech magnate, buying the Washington Post, the nation’s third most important newspaper.
Influence lives at intersections. Yet, as an industry, it at times feels the boundaries we have built around who makes an effective product manager, or programmer, or designer, are stronger than ever, even as the need to cross those boundaries is ever more pressing. It’s not that Thiel was wrong about what types of degrees push progress forward; rather, it’s the blind optimism that technology is an inherent good that is so dangerous.
Technology is destroying the world as it was; do we have the vision and outlook to rebuild it into something better? Do we value what matters?
[I think a lot of us do. Whether we’re the ones that will earn the kind of wealth that makes it easier to affect change of that quality is yet to be seen.]