Why Jeff Bezos and the Washington Post would be smart to cut a deal with Ezra Klein

The past couple of weeks have brought whispers of upheaval at the struggling Washington Post, with reports that Ezra Klein — the 29-year-old behind the paper’s popular WonkBlog — could leave the paper and either start his own standalone site or join an existing media outlet. It’s just the latest sign of a shift in the balance of power in media, one that has seen other journalistic brands like Nate Silver cutting their own deals, or even starting their own properties, as Jessica Lessin of the Wall Street Journal has done with The Information.

It could be that the Post has no choice but to let Klein go, now that he has reached the point where he is ready to ditch the newspaper to run his own operation somewhere else — in other words, there may be no deal that the paper could offer him that would convince him to stay, or at least none that would make financial sense for the company. But that doesn’t mean the Post shouldn’t try.

Gillmor tweet re Klein

Turned down by Weymouth and Bezos

According to a report in the New York Times, Klein had a meeting with Post management and asked for an eight-figure sum to launch a separate site that would be run by his team and co-owned by the newspaper — a model that sounds very similar to the one Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg created with All Things Digital, the now-defunct site they created in partnership with the Wall Street Journal in 2007 (the two just recently launched a new site called Re/Code, funded by NBC Digital and former Yahoo CEO Terry Semel).

The Times report says that Klein’s pitch was rejected not only by Post publisher Katharine Weymouth but also by the paper’s new owner, Jeff Bezos — although it’s not clear whether the billionaire Amazon CEO thought the idea wasn’t feasible, or whether he simply balked at the eight-figure price tag. The story says Klein is pursuing other options, including a site funded by venture investors.

As more than one observer pointed out, $10 million or more seems like a lot when the entire Washington Post only cost $250 million, and when a seven-person team at The Daily Dish can get by on less than $1 million in revenue. Klein’s operation — which includes a relatively new viral-content venture called Know More — reportedly pulls in 4 million pageviews a month (what one colleague apparently referred to as “f*** you traffic”) but that’s still a pretty hefty price tag.

Individual vs. corporate brand

It’s possible that Klein has over-estimated his value. Or he may have already decided to leave, and made the Post a ridiculously high-priced offer just to see whether they would bite. But I still think the newspaper — and Bezos — would be wise to try and convince him to stay, and to think seriously about the hybrid model that his pitch reportedly involved: a separate site co-owned by the Post, pitched at a specific readership and run like a standalone entity.

Cases like Nate Silver’s or Jessica Lessin’s (or any number of other recent examples, including Daily Dish founder Andrew Sullivan’s) show how far the balance of power has shifted away from large newspaper or media brands and towards individuals who have a strong connection to a reader community.

That’s not to say media brands don’t still have value, because of course they do. DealBook editor Andrew Ross Sorkin could leave the New York Times and run his own operation, and for that matter, Bits blogger Nick Bilton and columnist Nick Kristof probably could as well — but they choose to stay because presumably the NYT brand still has value. Even Nate Silver just swapped one media parent for another when he joined ESPN.

Hannay tweet re Klein

Why not a hybrid model?

That’s where a hybrid model presents an opportunity, a point that Dan Kennedy has also made at the Nieman Lab. Remaining part of the overall Post empire would give Klein not only a marketing boost but also likely some administrative and advertising support. Assuming the newspaper is willing to share revenue (which is a big assumption when it comes to many traditional media outlets), both could benefit from such an arrangement — Klein gets a sort of safety net and the Post gets revenue it wouldn’t otherwise have.

There’s no guarantee that this model would work long-term, of course. Trying to be independent while it was still owned by the Wall Street Journal apparently caused a substantial amount of friction between All Things Digital and its parent — friction that ultimately led Swisher and Mossberg to go shopping for a better deal. Newspapers have a habit of wanting to own and control everything, and their embrace can be just as much a hindrance as it can be a help.

In a way, I confess that I am torn by Klein’s potential departure: the part of me that is fascinated by media startups like Circa or Lessin’s The Information or the Daily Dish would love to see if he can make a standalone or self-funded site work. But if I were advising the Post, I would argue that they should do everything in their power to convince him not to — and not just because of Klein, but because of the message it would send to others.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / EDHAR