You don’t have to work in journalism to care that Jeff Bezos, the head of Amazon, has just laid down a quarter of a billion dollars to purchase The Washington Post. A lot of journalists are nervous about the acquisition. After all, it’s a billionaire professional disrupter buying up a print page built on tradition. The last thing we want is for The Post to turn into a technocrat’s soapbox.
What’s more frightening for the newspaper folks is the very prospect of change. Most people in print journalism will admit we can be a pretty backwards industry. We like paper and ink. We like to assign way too many reporters to a beat. We’re not always efficient, keeping minimal communication between copy-editors, photo-editors, designers, reporters and marketers. We’d probably go back to typewriters and dark rooms if we could. But, as you might imagine, Bezos and his Amazon gig aren’t so retro. He could bring heaps of change, unbearable change.
Personally, I think Bezos’ picking up The Post is good news. Here are a few reasons why:
- Bezos is a guy who specializes in innovation. Amazon is the biggest online retailer and it even out-innovated Apple to dominate the ebook market. Bezos can bring some of that innovation to an industry that desperately needs it. Newspapers haven’t been able to figure out how to reverse shrinking readership and slashed revenue. According to The Post itself, Bezos might bring new projects like: building custom news feeds for individuals, predictive analytics and interactive stories that target customer needs. He could upend the old model, but that might not be all bad.
- The biggest source of income for newspapers is not subscription fees — not even close — it’s ad revenue. But as papers have declined and the industry has thus far failed to figure out how to lure customers to their online presences, advertisers have fled. Bezos can fix this. He’s a titan of ad revenue, raking in hundreds of millions for Amazon and building custom ad architecture on par with facebook or Google. If Bezos can kickstart newspaper ad revenue, the digital age will get a little brighter for the newsies.
- Bezos has, quite simply, a lot of money. He only paid $250 million for The Washington Post. Amazon’s market value is $137 billion-with-a-B. That means Bezos can keep The Post afloat for a while as he experiments. He can put money into projects that, even if they fail, stand to benefit the whole industry. Also, while we might not like the idea of some rich techie at the helm of our beloved paper, there are a few good precedents out there. Rupert Murdoch, for one, despite fears about his personal biases, has proven a good steward of The Wall Street Journal.
- According to The Post’s article, Bezos is all about customer service. It even suggests Bezos might take down The Post’s online paywall because, obviously, it’s one of the biggest hindrances to gaining and holding on to customers. Paywalls have been a popular pickup for newspapers, especially since The New York Times initiated one. They’re a good way to keep journalists and designers on the payroll, but they’re a bad way to attract readers, especially when there are a million blogs or free media options that offer the same news, if at lower quality. But if Bezos can figure out how to turn a profit without a paywall, that’ll revolutionize the business and make a lot of editors and customers happy.
- It’s sad but true that a digital don buying a newspaper might make news cool again. Traditional journalism is fighting just to survive, and if by attaching itself to a web giant it becomes a bit more hip, that’s not a bad thing.
Time will tell the fate of The Post. The same goes for all the other big name papers being bought and sold (The Boston Globe, The Chicago Sun Times, Tribune papers including The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times, etc.). I don’t think newspapers are doomed, but I do think the ground is moving and we haven’t yet found a sturdy spot to stand.
Also, I stumbled across a tweet — the only way I come across any tweets — that I liked. It said something to the effect of: “Journalism will survive as long as there are wealthy elites to swoop up newsrooms as their personal playthings.”