Jeff Bezos and The Washington Post Sale: Why It's A Good Thing
The announcement earlier this week that Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos was going to purchase the Washington Post for $250 million hit news junkies, Washington insiders and media pundits with the punch of a stack of extras tossed on a street corner.
There was sadness the paper would no longer be in the hands of the Graham family. There was fear the paper that broke the Watergate story would become a kind of big box store of useless digital news tidbits. There was even the worry that Bezos will be too "Amazon efficient" and not let journalists be the wasteful, time sucking journalists of old who craft Pulitzer Prize winning stories at the local bar with a whiskey in one hand and a typewriter in the other.
I understand all the panic, but honestly, it's not as if Justin Bieber is buying the paper. Bezos is a digital innovator with the courage to experiment and more importantly, the patience to give those experiments a chance. And let's face it, that's what the news business needs. I could wax poetic about the glorious days of the printed page, but I agree with what Bezos said last year in a German magazine interview:
There is one thing I’m certain about: there won’t be printed newspapers in twenty years. Maybe as luxury items in some hotels that want to offer them as an extravagant service. Printed papers won’t be normal in twenty years.
Like it or not, Bezos is right. And he's right because that's the way the majority of news consumers will want it. Just like CD's and digital downloads took the place of records, and DVDs took the place of videotape, digital publications will supplant printed ones very soon. Does that make me a little sad? Sure. Part of me hates that Amazon has brought the traditional publishing industry and the neighborhood bookstores to their knees.
But if Amazon hadn't done it, someone else would have. With Amazon.com, Bezos saw the future and capitalized on it, while giving consumers what they didn't even realize they wanted. That's good business.
In his letter to Post employees about the Post purchase, Bezos stressed that the core values of journalistic integrity will remain. But he added there will eventually have to be changes:
The Internet is transforming almost every element of the news business: shortening news cycles, eroding long-reliable revenue sources, and enabling new kinds of competition, some of which bear little or no news-gathering costs. There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy. We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment.
In 20 years, we may look back on the purchase of the Washington Post by Bezos as the birth of digital journalism as a profitable news business.
When Amazon Prime was first introduced, I balked at paying $79 a year for guaranteed two-day shipping. Well it only took me a couple of months of using five to seven business day shipping for me to change my tune. I've gladly paid my $79 a year ever since. To know that I can purchase something right now and have it arrive in two days with no other fee has worked to my advantage many times. And I'm always excited to see that Amazon box on my doorstep.
Of course, delivering news is a more complex proposition than delivering books and DVDs, but if anyone can figure out how to get a public that's used to getting pretty much everything they want online for free, to pay up for quality news and journalism, it may just be Bezos.
And not a moment too soon, because even with the increase in online ad revenue, the news business is not reaping the benefits of that revenue. A Pew Research article about the purchase lays out the dismal numbers:
Overall mobile ad revenue is growing rapidly – 80% in 2012 – but as with digital ad revenue overall, it may be a bust for the news industry as technology giants like Google and Facebook move in to harvest that money. Fully 72% of mobile display ad revenue now goes to six companies—none of which are news producing organizations. Facebook didn’t even operate in the mobile realm until the summer of 2012, but already mobile accounts for 30% of its ad revenue. And, Google alone is now the ad leader in search, display and mobile.
Whoever turns that around will also have to pay for quality reporters, writers and editors while making sure that everyone else working for the Post doesn't have to live in the poor house to do so. Bezos may have to up his game when it comes to that part of the business if what some workers at Amazon warehouses say is true about working conditions.
Good journalism won’t go away with that printed page but will be harder to find. Consumers will have to become as discriminating with their news as they are when it comes to finding a reliable online shoe retailer that ships when they say and doesn’t send you a pair of used pumps.
If Bezos can make the average consumer as excited about the Washington Post online as they are when they see that Amazon logo on a box on their doorstep, he’ll have gone a long way toward bringing quality journalism profitably into the 21st century.