Jeffrey Preston Bezos is one of tech's most far-sighted thinkers, an entrepreneur who has helped pioneer internet retail and a visionary who is trying to ferry civilians into outer space. So, why would he want to buy into a crumbling industry like newspapers?
Bezos' investment company on Monday announced that it would acquire The Washington Post for $250 million. The Washington, DC-based newspaper has a proud journalism history, and for decades was a highly profitable business. But for newspapers, the internet era has been marked by declining revenue, layoffs and a loss of influence. That's why so many are wondering why the CEO made the investment and what he has planned.
many are wondering why Bezos made the investment and what he has planned
"I remember when we used to talk about what if Amazon got into the newspaper business," said Jim Brady, executive editor of the Post's digital unit from 2004 to 2009. "We used to wonder 'What if you could Amazon the news?' Well, I guess we're going to find out now."
Bezos has his work cut out for him. Newspapers are in bad shape. Craigslist and eBay have snatched away their classified ads business. A legion of blogs, which don't have to pay the high printing costs, have competed with them for readers. Insiders and analysts agree that the Post's most valuable asset is its name, and some say the paper is undervalued because management hasn't cashed in on that. Allen Weiner, a research analyst with Gartner, said the Post's brand is forever linked to exceptional political coverage. According to him, the internet could have helped expand that brand and the paper's readership far beyond the beltway, but the Post so far has missed the opportunity.
"I've always considered them a national newspaper," Weiner said. "Right up there with USA Today and The New York Times. Think about it: the lifecycle of politics is no longer just election periods. It's now pretty omnipresent. Politics is clearly a topic that people can't get enough of. The Daily Kos, The Huffington Post have done a good job of providing non-stop political coverage, but the Post has not capitalized on its investments in high-quality political reporting."
Weiner said he believes Bezos will want to target a much broader audience. He also thinks he should overhaul the the Post's existing technological infrastructure. Multiple sources within the Post who spoke to The Verge say that the paper is in need of new content management systems. Publishing stories at the paper is still too clunky and time-consuming a process.
Brady and Weiner anticipate that Bezos will come up with technological solutions to help reporters and editors be speedier and more efficiently because that's what he has done at Amazon so well. By creating an online store, he avoided having to open brick-and-mortar stores and paying the associated real estate and warehousing costs. His Kindle e-reader fueled the growth of ebooks, helped him cut the expense of warehousing and shipping bound books, and enabled him to offer lower prices than competitors.
When it comes to technology, he won't find the cupboards totally bare. Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, the newspaper's managing editor in charge of digital, was already leading an initiative to bring more web developers and computer engineers into the newsroom so its web and print operations would be better integrated. In the blogosphere, this may sound quaint, but we're talking about a 136-year-old newspaper. Change hasn't always come easily to management or the rank-and-file reporters.
For a long time in newsrooms across the country, reporters looked down their noses at writing for the web. The Post wasn't any different. Reporters went there to win Pulitzers, not to blog, said Brady. He said that by 2009, attitudes had shifted and most reporters understood the importance of the web. They might want to continue that trend.
Bezos has already said that he personally favors email newsletters and brief reports. Some at the paper are wondering if Bezos plans to make the newspaper more efficient by requiring reporters to write shorter stories, and more of them. It's what's happening all over in journalism, even at The Wall Street Journal.
The other thing occurring in journalism is staff reductions. At Monday's meeting to announce the sale to employees, the paper's management told workers that they had concluded their financial projections only showed one thing: that more staff reductions would be necessary in the future. In the past, the Grahams typically cut back on staff through buyouts. After the meeting, some people said it was obvious that the question on everybody's mind was whether Bezos would come in and start cutting the headcount.
Brady, for one, said Bezos knows that the publication, like the Times, is part of the Mt. Olympus of journalism. He doesn't think Bezos wants to undermine its reputation and brand by further reducing coverage or dumbing down the copy. Nonetheless, he predicts there are bound to be a few bumps as the Bezos era at the Post begins.
There are bound to be a few bumps as the Bezos era at the Post begins
"The trend is to write shorter and more often," Brady said. "But there's no shortage of long form journalism online. There's no doubt though, that there's going to be a huge collision between classic journalism and stunning technology."