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Jeff Bezos is saving the Washington Post, but he won’t be able to save newspapers

Not everyone gets to have a billionaire sugar daddy.

Jeff Bezos (r) and Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron (l)
Alex Wong / Getty

When I woke up this morning, the first story I read was by Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold. He’s been examining the way Donald Trump’s big boasts about charitable giving don’t appear to match up with his track record.

It’s a great story (really, you should read it), and it’s a good example of the high-quality journalism that Jeff Bezos has helped bankroll since buying the Post for $250 million in 2013.

The second piece I read was Gabriel Sherman’s largely positive New York Magazine feature about the Post, Bezos and the company’s unequivocally impressive digital successes.

Sherman writes that in the two and a half years since Bezos bought the paper, there have been lots of hirings, ambitious investigations and, most importantly, significant growth of the Post’s digital audience. It’s packaged as a heartwarming story about a rare success in a media ecosystem where it is nearly impossible to build a sustainable business on news.

But the second-to-last paragraph aggressively undermines Sherman’s optimistic framing. From his piece:

According to sources, the Post’s digital revenue is around $60 million, far below what the newsroom needs to function. The last time total operating revenue for the paper was published, in 2012, it was $580 million; one former executive estimates today it’s probably closer to $350 million. Another Post veteran told me that Bezos said in a meeting that the company’s annual budget, currently around $500 million, will have to be cut by 50 percent over the next three years. The newspaper denies this, and so does Prakash, who does, however, confirm that Bezos told him, “We can’t be an organization that loses gobs and gobs of money.”

For all of the Post’s digital growth — fueled by what Sherman says was a $50 million investment from Bezos — the business outlook remains pretty grim. Like most other newspapers, including the New York Times, the vast majority of the Post’s revenue comes from print subscriptions, which are dwindling rapidly industrywide.

To compensate, the Post’s leadership, according to Sherman, is exploring a number of largely untested or early-stage revenue sources.

It wants to license and sell its content management system, which it ambitiously hopes will generate $100 million in annual revenue. There’s an in-house “Brand Studio” which resembles the digital ad agencies at BuzzFeed, Vox Media* and other big publishers. The paper is publishing a lot of stuff directly to Facebook and other platforms. And, of course, there’s been a significant spike in the paper’s web and mobile audiences.

If the Post’s digital efforts generate $60 million in revenue, a small percentage of which is estimated to contribute to the paper’s $350 million in operating profit, the paper is still far away from anything resembling real business stability.

The upside is that the Post is owned by one of the wealthiest people on the planet in Jeff Bezos, who’s worth nearly $60 billion and believes that journalism is in the public interest. Even though Bezos has already gutted pensions and reportedly indicated that further budget cuts aren’t out of the question, the Post is obviously not going away anytime soon.

But most newspapers don’t get to have a billionaire sugar daddy. Other high-profile papers in major media markets have flirted with billionaire buyers (the New York Times and Mike Bloomberg, the Los Angeles Times and Eli Broad), but the industry trend is clear.

Bezos and his millions invested in the Post haven’t yet figured out a new trick to make news reporting the bedrock of a profitable business; it still doesn’t make a lot of sense for places like the Star-Ledger or the Hartford Courant to build their own ad agencies, a la BuzzFeed or Vox.

But the Post and Bezos can afford to keep tinkering, because Bezos’s billions won’t run out.

That’s not really the case anywhere else. Just ask Tronc.

* Vox Media is the parent company of Recode.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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