Is Amazon Founder's Purchase of The Washington Post Good for Newspapers?

Some wonder how the tech titan will reinvent the struggling industry

13 November 2013

Image: iStockphoto

When Amazon’s founder Jeffrey P. Bezos bought the fabled newspaper for US $250 million, it shocked a lot of people. After all, he and other leaders of the digital revolution have dealt quite a few blows to the newspaper industry over the years. Newspapers have lost the advertising revenue that supported their operations to CraigsList, Facebook, and Google. And a lot of people no longer get their news from a print edition or even a news site anymore; instead, they go to their favorite social media network where they can get information in a new, more engaging way, sharing articles among friends and family. What’s more, they read the news on their computers, tablets, and smart phones.

It’s no wonder that these changes have led publications around the world to close as they lost revenue and readers. These include the New Orleans’ Times Picayune, the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and the Financial Times Deutschland, a German newspaper. Even the tablet-only newspaper, The Daily, closed up shop last December. Others have slashed home delivery or, like the Christian Science Monitor, have shifted online and downsized its daily print edition to a weekly. Some like The New York Times offer limited free content as a way to survive. Still others have restructured and drastically reduced their staff, laying off reporters and editors just to stay afloat. Such was the case with El País, Spain’s leading newspaper, which reduced a third of its workers last year. As a journalist, it is hard to read about so many colleagues being out of work.

A wealthy person like Bezos saving a struggling newspaper is nothing new. Well-known media moguls such as William Randolph Hearst, S.I. Newhouse, and Joseph Pulitzer are just a few that came to the industry’s rescue. In their day, they all found ways to turn foundering papers into moneymakers by introducing new business models. Hearst acquired the most advanced printing equipment at that time, substantially made over the newspapers’ appearance, and hired the best journalists he could find. Newhouse was known to buy a city's oldest newspaper and then purchase its second newspaper, thereby allowing him to set advertising rates. To raise circulation of his newspapers, Pulitzer emphasized human-interest stories, scandal, and sensationalism.

In a New York Times article, James Marcus, who was Amazon employee No. 55, said of Bezos’ purchase: “If he goes even halfway through with his much-vaunted reinvention of journalism, there is no way he’s not going to break some eggs.” Marcus, now the executive editor of Harper’s Magazine, said it all made sense, kind of: “Bezos is fascinated by broken business models. And whatever else you think of newspapers, the business model is broken.”

Some say that the newspaper business can’t be saved because it’s stuck in the past. Experts point to the need for the newspaper industry to be more innovative and consider charging for online access. “Newsrooms are very conservative,” said Bill Buzenberg, executive director for the Center for Public Integrity, told the New York Times in that same article. “They have difficulty changing and certainly they have difficulty selling out their core principles.”

Bob Woodward, the famous Washington Post reporter who broke the Watergate scandal, said he hoped that because Bezos ran a company that was “customer focused,” the entrepreneur would recognize how much readers appreciate high-quality reporting.

After all, where would Google News and Facebook newsfeeds be without content? One of the core principles of any good site is focusing on quality content. Even bloggers who share their opinions often cite other’s articles as their sources. Trained journalists still have a purpose. They write exposés and investigative pieces, talk to experts and summarize what they have to say in an interesting and readable format, and put information into context in an objective way.

The transaction to sell to Bezos was completed on 1 October. He’s still silent on what he intends to do. I’m optimistic that he’ll find a way to reinvigorate the industry and find a way to publish high-quality articles in a more engaging and modern way, boosting readership and thereby employing more journalists. The only difference in today’s readers is not a lack of appreciation for news, but the manner in which they acquire it.

Do you think the technology industry can revive the struggling newspaper industry? What changes would you like to see Bezos implement to build up readership and revenue?  

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