Bezos, The Washington Post and the Future of News

I’ll absolutely have more to say about this in the days ahead, but wanted to try and get a conversation started about what (for me, anyway) was really last week’s biggest story (I suppose Obama cancelling the Putin summit - and a few other items (e.g., golf) might be close contenders for second place…. But for now – let’s focus.

What fascinates me the most about founder, Jeff Bezos, deciding to purchase a paper that has been in the hands of one of America’s most esteemed journalism families for over 70 years, and has played such an extraordinary role in 20th century US history (e.g., Woodward-Bernstein-Watergate – to cite just one example among many), is that newspapers are in such a uniquely odd economic situation. On the one hand, the newspaper industry – writ large – has undoubtedly suffered enormous financial hardship, unprecedented consolidation, a societally dangerous loss of investigative journalism departments and countless other body blows. On the other, actual demand for news (or, at least “information”) appears to be at an all-time high.

A few opening thoughts for consideration:

(1) Claims that the Internet “changes everything” are simply insufficient. Obviously, whenever technology leaps exponenentially, that’s going to have an enormous impact on any industry. The ability to access news interactively has played a massive role in undermining the traditional economics of advertising-based print journalism. But this type of explanation is nevertheless incomplete. Newspapers – at their core – are still aggressively profit-seeking businesses. They’ve tried countless new models including paywalls, free content incentives, asks for government subsidies, added online functionality and attempts to increase revenue via web-based adverstising. So far, however, the “success code” seems to remain “uncracked.” Has the Internet had a major effect? Absolutely. Nevertheless, recogninzing that the web’s ascendance – especially when viewed in isolation – is simply incapabable of providing a complete picture, remains essential for newspaper executives, journalists and – most importantly – journalism consumers.

(2) Our society has become vastly more fractured. During an era when “red staters” equate the New York Times with Pravda and “Blue Staters” look at the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page as if it were written by the Klan, the ways in which both advertising dollars and subscription dollars are distributed have become (and are increasingly becoming) more and more fundamentally ideological. This phenomenon, by itself, holds massive implications both in terms of what makes news gathering a successful enterprise but also poses profound sociological questions concerning our ability to remain a coherent community (Perhaps “union” would be the best word here…) What happens to the notion of America when we’re not merely communicating primarily inside so-called “walled gardens,” but actually living lives inside virtual fortresses of political conformity?

(3) Bezos is someone I’ve always respected. His ability to create as an online book-seller – and then almost immediately realize that it could do a lot more than sell books, impresses me tremendously. That was a bold business move and one that revolutionized the world of retail. But the real thing to understand about the story of Amazon is a single word: “patience.” The company rarely made a profit during its first decade of its existence. Bezos is the sort of guy who moves with precision. He’s willing to experiment, to innovate and even to fail – That is, until he ultimately discovers the best possible path. He certainly did so with Amazon, and it’s exactly that sort of tenacity which gives me real hope for the Washington Post’s future.

Overall, this is going to be a fascinating chapter in the development of America’s constantly evolving information infrastruture. I wish Bezos the best of luck and look forward to commenting further (and hearing from readers) as we all learn more about a rapidly evolving sphere of American business – one that also happens to be among our nation’s most significant defenses against tyranny and oppression. The First Amendment didn’t come first randomly. And I suspect that what we’re seeing today at WaPo has not either.

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