A common diatribe these days is that the Internet has broken the newspaper business model.
Newsprint is useless in the digital age, seems to be the lament, or war call, depending on which side of the digital divide you may be.
As Jeff Bezos buys the Washington Post, and with the sale of the Boston Globe this past week for $70 million to the quantitative trading pioneer and owner of the Red Sox team John Henry, the U.S. newspaper industry fell into a whirlwind. The Los Angeles Times has also been on the block for months.
We all hope that as visionaries like Bezos or other Silicone Valley billionaires go into the print news business, they can reboot the newspaper industry for the digital age. Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon.com, with a personal wealth of $28 billion, bought the Washington Post for $250 million.
Many questions beckon.
“Will he spend more on investigative reporting? What kind of investigative reporting? Will it be focused inward or will it be outward looking with more emphasis on foreign coverage?” asks columnist Daphne Bramham.
Usually, newspaper executives and editorial managers, even those on the business side of the print industry, are suspicious of technology companies reaching out to bail out sinking news companies.
Understandable, since cybernetics gurus like Craig Newmark did the newspaper classifieds business in with his humongous, global-size Craiglist. Apple turned the news magazine print business topsy-turvy with the iPad editions. So, what can digital savvy guys like Bezos — one of the great innovators of the digital era — do to fix the newsprint news model?A 1950’s Washington Post front page, with the Nationalist attack on Congress as the centerpiece news story. (Credit: WP News Archive)
Breaking down tradition
The Washington Post is a 135-year-old traditional newspaper institution. Any transformation in the fusty mechanics of the newspaper business is not an easy proposition. We will all be watching closely.
Bezos wrote a recent letter to Post employees: “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.”
Many news industry insiders think the obvious conclusion is that the iconic paper will stop printing and make a quick transition to becoming an online only newspaper.
Uhum! Seems he is ready to roll up his sleeves and go to work on a new proposal for the Post. But, Bezos, it seems, is not in a rush. He is rather on the path to re-invent and experiment.
Such a move would be easier for Bezos at this moment, compared to when he started Amazon 18 years ago, as an unknown company. This because the Washington Post is one of the best known news brands in the U.S. mainland.
Yet, he would have to act creatively on three traditional pillars of newspapering industry: how the paper is delivered, innovative content, and ad revenue generation. Newspapers worldwide have already figured how to best interact with its readers, so that is not a new challenge for Bezos.
He most surely will apply Amazon analytics technology to the Washington Post. Meaning his new model would provide Post subscribers with personalized news feeds and ads, based on geo-location and reading habits. If it works well at the Post, it can work everywhere else in print media.
Maybe Bezos will integrate reader voices into the digital edition, or probably will have ads tailored to a reader’s past purchases, a typical Amazon approach. Amazon, we must all agree, is geared toward a satisfying customer experience.
“We intend to build the world’s most customer-centric company,” Bezos said in a 1999 spiel to his shareholders.
Case studies show that Amazon does this very well by streamlining the buying routine on the Internet, or said better, wiping out any friction off the retail buying process. And he will have a great advantage which such maneuvers.
Bezos, 49, will keep the Washington Post company private. Meaning not having to report quarterly earnings to shareholders or be subjected to investors’ demands for ever-rising profits, experts in the industry point out.
“This gives him a free hand to figure out how to make a profit with the Washington Post brand and its online content, which is what he does best,” said Brahman in social media sites.
Great! Maybe we should entice Bezos to Puerto Rico. Five dailies have hit the dirt on the island in the last 30 years, including El Reportero, Momento, El Mundo, San Juan Star and the Daily Sun. No one was there to bail them out.
Those remaining, El Nuevo Día, Primera Hora and El Vocero, are perpetually menaced by emerging technologies and always in a race to stay afloat as print readership diminishes. It’s no state secret that the new generation of news readers prefer the Web.
We all hope Bezos does not fail in helming safely the patriarchal Post towards the digital age. After all, news as a market commodity is not the same as selling e-books and other merchandise on a retail basis through the Internet.
Just my opinion.