COLUMN-The next publisher of the Washington Post
By Jack Shafer
Aug 13 (Reuters) - I resist making predictions if only to avoid the inevitable disappointment when they fail to peg future events. As best as I can tell, every forecast, every prophecy, every reading of entrails and chicken bones that I've committed to print (or its digital equivalent) has failed to come true. But this time I think I've read enough into my tea leaves to confidently assert my suspicion that in early October, after Jeff Bezos consummates the deal he made with Donald Graham to purchase the Washington Post for $250 million, one of his first acts of ownership will be to name Vijay Ravindran his publisher of the newspaper.
Ravindran, who holds the title of senior vice president and chief digital officer at the Washington Post Co., seems like such a logical fit for the job I feel guilty about killing that goat and boiling a chicken to confirm my hunch. Ravindran's company biography makes him sound like a research product bred specifically to replace the Washington Post's current publisher and chief executive officer, Katharine Weymouth.
Ravindran previously worked as a software engineer and technical manager between 1998 and 2005 at Bezos's Amazon, where he labored to help bring 1-Click ordering, Amazon Prime, and other advances to the online shopping. From 2005 through the 2008 election, he was chief technology officer at Catalist, a D.C.-based vendor of voting-list databases for progressive clients.
Since joining the Post Co. in 2009, Ravindran has sought to transfer some of Amazon's technological gravitas to its online operations. WaPo Labs, which Ravindran founded and leads, has developed several experimental services including Trove, a news personalization site that I use daily, and others that I've never touched, including the Post's Social Reader and its Poll Watch app. As part of his techno-push, the company has also recruited such talented folks as Rob "CmdrTaco" Malda of Slashdot fame. Last year, SocialCode, the Post Co. social advertising agency that Ravindran helps lead, made news when it "acquihired" 15 engineers from the previous incarnation of Digg.com.
I hype Ravindran not because any of his software novelties overwhelm me. They don't. But they reflect a salutary change in the company, which belatedly came to appreciate the centrality of technology to the new epoch.
So why am I Ravindran's champion? I met him several times between 2009 and 2011 while working at the Post Co.'s Slate division, and what struck me about him was a lack of pretension, a quality rarely displayed by journalists or software jockeys, and his apparent sincerity. Personable, knowledgeable about journalism and business, and brimming with tech insight and ideas, he seemed like the sort of guy you'd like to work for (no, that's not my "job wanted" notice). He's sort of like a 39-year-old Don Graham, but capable of speaking code. It's easy to see why the pair clicked.
As publisher (oh, hell, why not make him the president of the paper, too?) the former Amazonian could bridge the obvious cultural divide that separates the paper from Bezos's world. Able to speak both newspaper and technology, Ravindran could explain the newspaper to Bezos and Bezos to the newspaper, its advertisers, and its readers.
I hope the fact that Ravindran has zero experience as a newspaper publisher will encourage Bezos to appoint him. The areas of expertise a candidate for newspaper publisher must master have shifted from circulation, advertising, and printing to skills much more up Ravindran's alley. Technology, which spelled the ruination of the American newspaper business model, may be its only salvation. If we take Bezos at his word that he believes print newspapers will be dead in a generation, that he intends to experiment and improvise at the Post, and that he promises to make things and break things, then he needs a big-ideas partner with a knack for spotting and guiding talent.
One barrier to Ravindran's ascension to publisher is that WaPo Labs does not come with the sale of the paper. But that's no excuse for Bezos to lose his former employee to the soon-to-be former owners of the Washington Post.
Ravindran's greater liability as Post publisher would be political. He's repeatedly revealed his preference for the Democratic Party, as NewsBuster's Brent Baker has noted.
First, there's his work with the above-mentioned Catalist, which works for progressives. And then there are his many political donations. During the 2004 presidential campaign, Ravindran gave to both Wesley Clark ($2,000) and John Kerry ($2,000).
In the 2008 presidential campaign, he donated to Hillary Clinton ($2,300) and Barack Obama ($4,600). He gave $5,000 to the Democratic Party's 2006 House and Senate Victory Fund and $2,300 to the 2008 Andrew Rice for U.S. Senate campaign in 2008 in Oklahoma. He's also been active in the Indian-American Leadership Initiative PAC, which in his words "is an organization dedicated to furthering Indian-American Democrats in politics," giving it $4,801 in 2009, and also giving money to specific Indian-American candidates.
Ravindran's political generosity bothers me about as much as the expert hedging the Amazon PAC has done in recent years, almost balancing political donations to the two major parties.
But I understand that some Post readers will expect Ravindran to complete bipartisan conversion therapy before being allowed to run the business side of the paper. Whatever his transgressions, they don't approach those of former Post Publisher Phil Graham, Don's father, who successfully hectored John Kennedy into adding Lyndon Johnson to the Democratic Party's 1960 presidential ticket. Maybe a mock confirmation hearing could be staged at the Post auditorium followed by a brief lashing to cleanse all political taint from Ravindran's mind.
Jeff Bezos, who has promised both to be physically absent from the Post while integrally involved in its remaking, needs a local mini-me to make that happen. Ravindran has the potential to be a maxi-me. What is the rich guy waiting for?
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