A little over five years ago, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post for $250 million. This was a much-needed boost for the struggling newspaper, but it also created an obvious conflict for the newsroom: How do you cover the richest man in history when he’s also your boss?
The usual firewalls are intact, according to executive editor Marty Baron. While Bezos weighs in on the Post’s business strategy, he stays away from the paper’s news coverage entirely. And as Washington Post spokesperson Kris Coratti told HuffPost over email, “We do not have any policies around employees being critical of Amazon.” But influence doesn’t always work in obvious ways. Just the knowledge that the man paying the bills also owns a major subject of coverage can be complicating in itself.
So we asked a bunch of Washington Post employees what they would say about Amazon if they weren’t worried it might cost them their jobs.
There was nothing scientific about our sample. Most people ignored us altogether. A few declined to respond. And several balked at the mere suggestion that they might be censoring themselves somehow. Still, quite a few relished the opportunity to speak out in an unfettered way about Amazon (though these criticisms were often followed by reminders that please, for the love of God, don’t use their names).
Here’s what some anonymous Washington Post employees actually think about Amazon. We’ll be updating with additional responses as they come in.
Please give away more of your money instead of sending it to space.
Amazon is a great company, from the consumer side. It’s Product Google, type in the thing and get what you’re looking for. From an employment side, I get that it’s a lot murkier and that its scale makes often-normal, ugly employment practices stand out more.
Amazon workers absolutely need a union, their workers should be allowed to organize peacefully, and I’m just thankful we were already a union shop when we were bought.
I’m boring, I have no strong Amazon opinions.
I’m grateful Bezos bought the Post, because I probably wouldn’t have a job here without it. With that said, I’m both concerned and hopeful about the Amazon real estate deal in Virginia. On one hand, a win is a win for the area when it comes to new jobs. On the other, how Amazon builds out their new facility needs scrutiny, and it will be especially complicated for The Post to cover it, both in terms of perceptions and reality. We need to dig in on it. Separately, I think the conflation of the “Amazon Washington Post” in pop culture and politics is difficult for the paper. I cringed when I watched Steve Carell’s recent SNL skit where he posed as Bezos and implied he has a role in the newsroom to troll Trump. From what I’ve seen, he really doesn’t, and it’s a challenge when it keeps getting portrayed otherwise.
My answer isn’t that fun, but I feel like I can say whatever I want about Amazon. Haven’t felt any pressure to censor (but I did just cancel my Prime account to save $$$).
The treatment of Amazon workers is atrocious. It’s the 21st century version of old-school 19th century style labor violations. People ought to be able to use the restroom on the job, folks; that’s not really up for debate. And then there are the hideously subpar wages. I appreciate Bezos’ sponsorship of the Post, but our values are wildly out of sync with his shitty treatment of his own workers.
The Post has the standard newspaper culture where any public display of opinion on any of the 1,000 subjects we cover is strongly discouraged, and I think that’s as much a driver of self-censorship as any specific concerns related to Bezos owning us. (I think a lot of employees would also avoid expressing a strong online opinion about Google or Facebook, for example.) That being said! Amazon clearly hates unions. As far as I know the Post is the only thing that Bezos owns that’s unionized, and the last round of contract negotiations were absolutely brutal because of it, despite 2016 and 2017 being huge successes for the paper by any measure. I’m glad that the HQ2 sweepstakes and its conclusion was so transparently gross that the company actually got some blowback for it. Working conditions in fulfillment centers sound terrible. Amazon Fire tablets suck.
Are we not allowed to say anything about Amazon...?
I don’t really know what I’d say. I mean, I work for the Post and it’s a pretty glorious thing. I don’t really deal with anything involving Amazon. The boss seems to give us a budget to do good work, and we try our best. Damn, that’s a boring response.
[Amazon] is kinda the perfect, terrifying example of what people are willing to ignore for the sake of convenience.
I’d say, “Please return our phone calls.” But I guess every reporter would say that.
Okay, so I’m not sure if this is exactly what you’re looking for, but I would say that i tend to do less critical thinking about Amazon than I do, say, about Facebook or Google or Walmart, and the reason is fairly obvious: because I am thankful for the opportunity I have, which wouldn’t exist without Jess Bezos. Absent a deep, more thoughtful analysis, do I have concerns about Amazon’s impact on the world―labor practices, antitrust law and the future of small businesses? Yes. And would I say that out loud at work? No. Oh, I would also say that when you have a $1 trillion market cap, you ought to be able to afford health insurance for your warehouse employees. [Ed. note: This employee was later eager to clarify that they meant “Jeff,” not “Jess.”]
I hope Amazon employees aren’t fooled by that hyped up pay raise from [October], I get excited every time I hear news of union talk at Amazon sites.
Like everyone who thinks about it for more than a minute, I wish Amazon paid warehouse workers better, had better labor conditions, weren’t part of a monopoly-inclined tech culture, and didn’t put cities and states through the ridiculous torture of throwing tax incentives at one of the most valuable companies in the history of the world for a second headquarters they apparently had decided they needed to open anyway for business reasons. Nevertheless, like everyone who spends too much time on their phone and computer, I buy a lot of stuff there. As a Post employee specifically, though, one of my biggest frustrations with Amazon is that the story you’re writing is such an obvious one to do: The immense wealth and power that Jeff Bezos amassed there let him pour resources into our work, but also gives people reason to wonder whether Amazon is off-limits for us. My colleagues who cover the company do a good job navigating the many potential conflicts of interest inherent in writing critically about a massive corporation run by your boss. But those conflicts of interest are there no matter how well we do our jobs.
It is the ugliest site on the Internet. It’s as if some designer was directed to generate as many images, words and numbers as possible, and then arrange them in the most confusing and least attractive fashion they could muster. The only thing uglier than this site’s design is the selection of women’s clothing, which all come from brands you have never heard of with names like “Snowfoller” and “Yyear.” I once made the mistake of paying for gift wrap from Amazon for a baby shower gift. “Gift wrap” at Amazon means it comes in a blue box with a mustard ribbon (no bow) and a piece of computer paper folded into a tag with the Amazon logo on it. It looks like something you would be handed on your way out of a regional corporate conference in the Philly suburbs, and they charge money for this. Bezos has so much money, he is publicly mulling throwing it into a trash can in outer space while his employees have to donate vacation time to each other when they get cancer. Literally he would rather launch money into space for no purpose than give it to the people who work for him. I love working at the Post, but Amazon sucks.
If you work at the Post and would like to add your voice to the list, feel free to get in touch.
UPDATE: Dec. 6 —
After this article was initially published, an Amazon spokesperson reached out to HuffPost with a statement calling attention to Amazon’s “great wages and benefits.” The statement also noted the following:
Additionally, Amazon respects the rights of employees to choose to join or not join a labor union. We firmly believe the direct connection we have with employees is the most effective way to understand and respond to the needs of our employees. We would be more than happy to give the newsroom of the Washington Post a fulfillment center tour so they can come see for themselves what it’s like to work at an Amazon fulfillment center. We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maxwell Strachan contributed reporting.