Sunday, August 11, 2013

Bookmark this space:
Jeff Bezos and the Washington Post to come

YOU KNEW something was up the day of and the days after the announcement that the irrepressible multi-billionaire Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post for $250 million if you watched MSNBC. Ezra Klein, a Washington Post writer on politics and economic policy, was pinch-hitting last week for one of the hosts on the cable channel. Klein was mostly as usual: sharp, direct, accessible, efficient in his on-air delivery.

But at least once when he was on the air  talking about the Post deal, Klein betrayed a look of uncertainty; at times he looked vaguely stricken — perhaps to be expected when your employer becomes, suddenly and maybe even transformationally, a bigger part of the news than it’s already been.

To call the Bezos buy a thunderclap in the media world would be a profound understatement. This purchase — with Bezos’ own couch-cushion money, mind you — will wed one of the nation’s pre-eminent newsgathering organizations with its equally pre-eminent online reseller; for journalists and readers of news content, the contemplation of what might be possible boils the brain cells, even as it raises the prospect of what in this new conflation of content and commerce might go wrong. Let’s remember: there hasn’t been such a noisy mashup of old media and new media since ... since AOL and Time Warner. I’m just sayin’.

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The question, of course, screams to be asked: WTF would Jeff Bezos do with The Washington Post? Let the speculation industry begin. Some have guessed that Bezos, said to be a Libertarian, is making the buy to advance that political philosophy, but there’s little to support that. He’s reportedly made campaign contributions to more than one political party in the past, and Bezos is an intensely private person, so much so that, thankfully, his personal politics appear to be the best kind for an otherwise toweringly public persona: His own damn business.

There’s some thought that with the Post buy Bezos gains Amazon additional credibility as a force to lobby in Washington on matters from taxes on Internet commerce — a longtime thorn in Amazon’s side — to Internet security.

Others give Bezos more indulgent reasons. With a personal net worth in the gilded neighborhood of $25 billion, Bezos has been able to act on his wildest ideas, including development of a clock in West Texas intended to keep time for the next 10,000 years and a project to recover rocket remnants from the historic Apollo 11 moon flight in 1969. Some think that buying The Washington Post is his latest exercise in vanity.

But even that’s a weak reason; fun is fun, but $250 million is still serious money. More sober considerations have Bezos up to something as serious as the investment.

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WHY IS Amazon’s founder betting on old media? Here’s one answer: Jeff Bezos loves content and he always has,” Bloomberg BusinessWeek senior writer Brad Stone said.

“Of the businesspeople I know, he and Bill Gates are the two most intellectually curious people I know. It doesn’t surprise me that Jeff would find something with the intellectual depth of The Post an intriguing, compelling thing to be involved with,” RealNetworks CEO Rob Glaser told The New York Times.

Maybe. Bezos could have gone on loving the Post’s content forever without actually buying the company. Henry Blodgett, an editor for Business Insider and someone in a position to know, or certainly speculate, says: “I’d guess that Jeff Bezos thinks that there are some similarities between the digital news business and his business (ecommerce)–and that no one in the news business has really capitalized on this yet.”

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Alec MacGilllis, writing in The New Republic, senses something more sinister:

“[L]et’s not kid ourselves here: The company that made him one of the richest men in the world has had a less than benign impact on our nation. It has devastated the publishing industry, from the big presses to the small booksellers. It has exacerbated the growth of the low-wage economy, to the point where the president feels the need to celebrate an increase in warehouse jobs that will pay barely more than minimum wage. (Fun fact uncovered by the Morning Call in Allentown, Pa. two years ago: Instead of paying for air-conditioning at some Pennsylvania warehouses, Amazon had just stationed paramedics outside to take the inevitably heat-stressed workers to the hospital.)

Even allowing for some misprecision — the Post was a personal Bezos buy and not an outright, per se extension of the Amazon empire; that distinction deserves to be conceded, at least for now — MacGillis makes a good point: historically, Bezos’ proven love of content has meant love on his terms. How that’s reconciled in the reliable chaos of the news game today is anyone’s guess.

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CHRIS HUGHES, the majority owner of the New Republic and a co-founder of Facebook who bought his interest in TNR in March 2012 — and immediately faced the same “why?” Bezos is dealing with now — thinks Bezos’ move is meant to capitalize on more than the assets of the purchase, more than the sum of its parts. Writing in his own publication, Hughes says

“I’m guessing that Bezos understands an old truism: brands matter. The wonder and magic of institutions like the Post or The New Republic is their history — their stories track the American story. In many cases, they have made that very history through their reporting. No owner can brush aside these powerful legacies, regardless of his or her start-up bona fides. ...

“We read differently today than 20 years ago or even two years ago. Tablets, phones, blogs, print—we find content everywhere, but expect different things from it depending on the context. But the one constant, the one thing that matters when readers think about paying or advertisers think about buying, is the power of the brand. ...

“If you were to believe the superficial logic of many Internet media companies, you would only look at a site’s unique visitors and volume to determine the level of fidelity of the reader. But when it comes to the audiences that most advertisers in The Washington Post and the New Republic have always sought, these individuals check Twitter first thing in the morning, but turn to these traditional institutions in the afternoon, in the evening, and on the weekend. That fidelity merits the value that these institutions garner in private transactions.”

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But for all the speculation about Bezos’ next move for The Post will ultimately be, you could do worse than to read comments made at a presentation by Ellen Kampinsky, a well-regarded editor and newspaper feature section designer, at the IFRA Newsroom Convergence Conference in Barcelona in May ... of 2001.

Her comments, titled “Amazoning the News,” are published at the Hypergene Web site (a tip of the hat to Jim Romenesko’s excellent media-news Web site for publishing the link last week).

“The web has content, it has material that is repurposed, it has data — but where are the stories?” Kampsinky asked a dozen years ago. “Where are the stories that are being told in a new way appropriate to this medium? In my opinion, the stories that are done in the best, the most web-specific way, are not on the New York Times site or Salon or The best job of story telling is being done by ... Amazon.”

Kampinsky’s address included design and operational concepts that are, a dozen years later, almost quaint in the way they’ve already been embedded in the editorial culture of new media: reader comments, reader rankings, live votes, story posting times.

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BUT ELSEWHERE, Kampinsky envisioned things that mainstream online news outlets still haven’t fully invested in. The idea, for example, of “points” that readers can accrue by reading a story or e-mailing it to friends — then use to buy actual merchandise — hasn’t gained critical mass.

For Kampinsky, this transactional component is one of the five important things for achieving engagement on the Internet. The others she cites in her Barcelona address are to share, inform, create and entertain. In her overview, achieving these means making the reader more central to the newsgathering process from the start, with more content tailored to the reader, psychographic metrics, stories based on topics rather than events, and stories that morph and evolve based on reader queries and input.

Share, inform, create, entertain and transact. Kampinsky said these five goals were the things that mastered. In 2001.

It’s fairly certain that, to one degree or another, The Washington Post under Jeff Bezos will be reconfigured to achieve these goals, or more fully achieve these goals than The Post is doing today. The memo Bezos circulated last week to Post staffers is no doubt a barometer of the storm of change to come:

“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,” he said. “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.”

Bezos to Post: Fasten your seat belts. Bezos to world: Bookmark this space.

Also published at Image credits: Washington Post front page parody: Bezos: via, possibly an official Amazon photo. Hughes: USV via Wikipedia (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license). 

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