Executive Editor David Boardman invites readers to respond to Amazon.com coverage.
No, it wasn’t because Amazon.com’s newest building blocked our view of the Space Needle. No, it wasn’t because my latest book order from Amazon arrived late. And it certainly wasn’t because the lines at the lunch spot across the street are a lot longer since Amazon moved into our neighborhood.
Those were just some of the theories offered by commenters on seattletimes.com last week, claiming to know the newspaper’s real motivation for publishing the four-part series “Behind the Smile,” looking hard at Amazon’s civic and business practices.
As happens anytime we ask tough questions about a powerful local company or institution — be it Boeing, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center or University of Washington football — we received a torrent of response to the series by Amy Martinez, Kristi Heim, Hal Bernton, Susan Kelleher and Jim Brunner.
In the comments section of our website, the reaction was overwhelmingly negative toward us and positive toward Amazon. Example: “Your trashy take on a local business rock star is shameless.”
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But in emails, calls and letters directly to the reporters and their editors, and in other publications both print and digital, it was significantly more positive. We heard from current and former Amazon employees applauding the series, as well as many businesspeople who had had difficult dealings with the company. Typical of the positive response: “Bravo on your article on Amazon. It takes courage and independence to take on a giant.”
And while many commenters complained about the tone of the series, there have been no challenges of fact.
In total, it is clear we tapped into a lot of emotion about Amazon, an innovative, highflying company that has redefined retailing and customer service, collecting many fans and critics along the way.
Amazon’s approach to its customers is widely and deservedly hailed as among the best in the world. But over the past year, in particular — when the company was making $1,500 per second and building a $5 billion cash reserve — Amazon’s approach to its hometown, its business partners, its workers and the tax collectors had started to attract national scrutiny, albeit fragmented.
In Seattle, the company’s relative absence in philanthropic and civic causes had become a whispered buzz. In California and elsewhere, Amazon had fought new laws forcing it to collect sales taxes just as its brick-and-mortar competitors must. In Pennsylvania, a newspaper in Allentown had revealed brutal working conditions in an Amazon warehouse there. And across the country, a few independent book publishers were beginning to quietly push back against what they felt were unfair, strong-arm tactics in business dealings with Amazon.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, in which it declared that corporations hold many of the same rights as individual citizens, had fomented a national dialogue about both the privileges and responsibilities of companies.
Given all that, it seemed not only natural, but imperative, that The Seattle Times, as the major journalistic entity in Amazon’s hometown, would examine the company’s practices as a corporate citizen. While our primary charge is as a watchdog on government, and we dedicate a lot of resources to that, we also feel an obligation to ask tough questions of other power centers such as business, labor and nonprofits.
In Amazon’s case, we spent months doing so, interviewing hundreds of people, poring through documents and pressing the company, mostly futilely, to provide interviews. Ultimately, we were able to shed light on largely hidden aspects of a company that is as secretive as it is successful.
More than a few of our commenters reacted with such opinions as “This isn’t news,” and “Just report the news.” We beg to differ.
While we do our best to keep you up on what’s going on around here — and have reporters dispatched to monitor Congress, the Legislature, local governments, the justice system, school boards, cultural institutions, sports teams at all levels and businesses of all sorts — we see our responsibility as more than just providing an account of the day’s events.
The Times has long made public-service, investigative reporting a cornerstone of our mission. In recent months, our reporting resulted in the state of Washington ending its deadly practice of routinely using methadone as a painkiller for Medicaid patients.
Sometimes, as in the case of exposing safety problems in some Boeing airplanes, or raising ethical questions about some practices at The Hutch, or revealing widespread hooliganism among Husky football players, we touch a nerve. But in each of those cases, the stories resulted in policy changes. We consider this kind of journalism part of our customer service, something we take just as seriously as Amazon does.
Just as importantly, perhaps, these sorts of stories have led to rich, widespread community discussion and debate. This one certainly has, on our website and on many others.
In fact, we would welcome Amazon’s participation in that discussion, beyond the scant input it provided us. The company refused to tell us even how many people it employs in Seattle. We would welcome hosting an Amazon executive for a live online chat with Times readers.
Meanwhile, I invite you to contact me with any further comments, suggestions and questions on this coverage. My email address is email@example.com.