Founded by Drew Pearson 1932
Bezos and the missing model
By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift
WASHINGTON – Imagine a major national newspaper online and a permanent advertisement with multiple categories and teasers in one long column down the right side of the front page and what you have is The Washington Post and Amazon.
It’s not a new development when a wealthy person buys a media property. We’ve seen it happen with Rupert Murdoch and The Wall Street Journal and Sam Zell with The Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times. Murdoch pulled it off and the Journal remains a leading national newspaper. Zell took the company he bought private, sold off various pieces, then filed for bankruptcy.
No wonder people who care about journalism reacted with alarm at the news that Boston Red Sox owner John Henry was buying the Boston Globe for $70 million, and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was acquiring The Washington Post for $250 million, fire sale prices for these iconic newspapers, and chump change for the billionaire buyers.
But once the initial shock wore off, especially with the Post, which had been in the same family for 80 years, the new ownership could be good for journalism. It’s a new day, and for any media outlet to survive it has to figure out how to appeal to and attract the millennial generation.
Bezos figured that out with Amazon, and he is now in a position to apply his innovative mind and technological savvy to a newspaper industry that by modern standards is still stuck in the horse-and-buggy era. Millennials, born between 1980 and 2000, are the future, and Bezos knows what they like, and how to draw them to his Amazon site.
Young people like everything on line, and they like it free. The challenge for newspapers is how to make money in this environment. Bezos is spending his own personal fortune to buy the Post, but that will not preclude him from drawing upon Amazon to run a permanent ad in the paper. He will take the company private, which could be a good thing for the public trust that we associate with the Graham family and their ownership of the Post.
The millennials are an even larger generation than the Baby Boomers (1946 – 1964) and this younger cohort is likely to have the same massive impact on life and culture and societal norms as the Boomers. The Boomers moved through society like a tidal wave, creating opportunities, expanding colleges, buying cars and houses, and leaving their imprint on everything they touched.
Millennials are very different. They’re not buying cars; they prefer living in cities where they can walk to restaurants and stores, and they’re highly mobile, happy to rent as opposed to becoming suburban homeowners. Figuring out what they want and need in terms of news, and how to reach them, is the key to the Post’s future.
In recent years, the Post has been starved for resources, shutting down foreign bureaus, laying off staffers, and shrinking newspaper pages. Bezos doesn’t have any obvious ideological bias, so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, which is that he wants a product that upholds the reputation for quality that the Post has built.
With sufficient funds, serious journalism will not only survive but could thrive. Bezos is a businessman, motivated by the challenge of reinventing a newspaper that has been slowly dying and whose leaders have basically conceded defeat. They couldn’t come up with a business model that could leapfrog over the red ink and chart another path.
Taking the long view is Bezos’ specialty. He withstood several years of losses at Amazon and a great deal of mockery from his friends before the company took off. He has so much money now that his investment in the Post is less than one percent of his net worth. This is not a financial risk for him, but he is putting something far more important to him on the line, and that’s his reputation as a living symbol of American ingenuity, the next Steve Jobs.
The Washington Post and Amazon may turn out to be a perfect fit, the missing model that has eluded newspaper publishers since the coming of the Internet. A high quality online paper will draw readers, especially if Bezos makes it free. And Amazon will have continuous access to a large audience to sell thousands of products.
© 2013 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.
Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.
END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND