Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has been in charge of the Washington Post for almost 10 months now and some of the first reports on his leadership have come in. The longest and most comprehensive is from the Columbia Journalism Review (their editor-in-chief was a Post executive editor for some time, no doubt ensuring their access for this piece). The acquisition was huge news in the media industry, for good reason. The Post had experienced dramatic declines in revenue and circulation for decades. It also seemed like its cultural presence had diminished in the face of the New York Times – the U.S. national paper of record.
Bezos brings with him enormous expertise at navigating the digital world. Amazon.com is a ubiquitous thing and has taken on the biggest conglomerates, from Wal-Mart to the big five book publishers. It was also one of the first non-porn websites to make a lot of money and not just generate hype. It’s hard to know what the future is for large news organizations, but it’s harder to imagine a strong digital operation not being a key component of whatever model proves successful. But creating this model is a tremendous challenge for Bezos. It’s not as if large, powerful organizations haven’t tried to adapt to changing news norms. Advertising is so much less potent in the digital world than in print. Someone who clicks on a story on washingtonpost.com is far less likely to spend the time on it or browse as many other stories as someone reading that same story in print. This is coupled with the initial (and current) reluctance of many news agencies to charge for online content. The bottom line is that web traffic doesn’t generate enough money to maintain the same kind of news-gathering operations these companies had gotten used to.
The deterioration of institutional media is one of the big stories of my generation and it’s very difficult to say where I’ll be getting my news in 20 years time, or whether it will be credible or from an institutionalized source at all. But regardless, we know that a healthy and vibrant press is essential to a healthy and vibrant democracy. All honest efforts toward that end should be encouraged. Bezos is definitely committed to the Washington Post brand and has big ambitions that could be great for those of us who love great reporting. But it’s noticeable that Bezos has very specific priorities of his own:
Editors and reporters talk about the Post becoming a “global” paper. They say that the Post will create a news “bundle” that will repackage all the elements of the print newspaper in a way that readers will pay for in digital form. Using tablets and other devices, Bezos aims to recreate the intimate, cohesive, and somewhat linear consumption experience of old media in a way that makes sense for digital. The newsroom has also been told that the paper will cultivate an audience of 100 million unique visitors. Or paid digital subscribers. One hundred million something. They say that, unlike traditional newspaper publishers with their notions of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands, their new owner thinks in terms of hundreds of millions.
These are big numbers and there seems to be a lot of productive discussion of form, but less of content. Perhaps they’re taking for granted that the Washington Post will have good content, but the rest of us are less than assured. Here’s more:
The journalism isn’t what he plans to revamp, or necessarily invest significant new funds in—the new hires notwithstanding—at least initially. His main focus is the pipeline: reaching the maximum number of customers by putting the Post’s journalism in a package (a tablet, a mobile site) that will draw the greatest number of readers.
I’m sympathetic to this. I remember a few years ago the Post website was one of the worst big news sites. In sharp contrast, the New York Times was very pleasingly laid out with its classic design and bold letterhead. There’s nothing wrong with ease of access and good design. Any good product or service should have these things and perhaps one of the biggest problems with news media transitioning to the web is their underinvestment in them, but there’s a huge distinction to be made between content and form. At the end of the day, when I’m looking for news I want good content, good form may more easily bring me in, but good content gets me to stay. Here’s another quote from the CJR piece, courtesy of the Post‘s Chief Information Officer Shailesh Prakash:
“It’s wonderful to have an owner who fundamentally believes that it’s not just content that will differentiate us,” he continued, “but also the design and the technology of how that content is presented, the speed at which it is presented, the quality of the products that present that content.” In other words, in most newsrooms, journalism is the engine and technology essentially functions in service of that journalism. At Bezos’ Washington Post, it seems, those two forces will find equilibrium.
I appreciate what he’s saying and again I recognize the need for good form to attract people before they can absorb any of the content. The word “equilibrium” is very well used in the above paragraph. In a perfect world there will be a good balance between appearance and substance, yin and yang. Perhaps the main problem with newspapers these past few decades has been form and to reinvigorate the business most of what’s needed is slick packaging and 21st century design. Bezos certainly seems like the ideal person to lead this charge. But good journalism is about something more than that. Woodward and Bernstein didn’t bring down a president with good design and a seamless multi-integrated all-access platform, they did it with incredible, complicated, dangerous journalism. That put the Post on the map. Of course scoops like that only come around once in a generation, but they’re not given, they’re earned. And they’re the ones we remember. Those scoops, coupled with stubborn, hard-nosed, politically incorrect everyday journalism, are what I would prefer Bezos et al put in their sights. But here’s hoping for a future with both.