Once you get over the shock that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is buying the Washington Post for $250 million, ending the Graham family's stewardship of one of America's leading newspapers, what stands out is having this master of online marketing and retailing taking a shot at the sad-sack world of old media. Up until now, digital guys have had zero interest in ink-stained wretches. Newspapers, especially the print versions, have been punchlines to the Silicon Valley crowd. That's probably one of the reasons you've seen so little newspaper re-imagining; all the talent - and money - has ventured into more promising fields. By purchasing the Post, Bezos won't necessarily alter that pattern. In fact, you could argue that this is an anomalous event - he's been good friends with Post Chairman Donald Graham, for one thing, and it's Bezos himself who is buying the Post, not Amazon. And of course there's zero guarantee that he'll have any better luck than other rich guys who have bought large newspapers in recent years. But check out the message he delivered to Post employees:
There will of course be change at The Post over the coming years. That's essential and would have happened with or without new ownership. 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. 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. Our touchstone will be readers, understanding what they care about - government, local leaders, restaurant openings, scout troops, businesses, charities, governors, sports - and working backwards from there. I'm excited and optimistic about the opportunity for invention.
We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment. This is what the LAT (as well as many large U.S. newspapers) desperately lack: A pair of fresh eyes that can re-think the business in interesting, innovative ways. Making that happen will require an owner who not only is willing to spend money, but spend in ways that make sense in a digital world. None of the folks expressing interest in the LAT or the Tribune papers as a group would seem to fit that bill. From Slate's Matthew Yglesias:
Now based on what we can tell from Bezos' stewardship of Amazon, he's possibly a dream owner from a journalism viewpoint. It's of course possible that his intention is to run the company with a mindset of cutbacks on the expenses side to try to milk as much profit as possible out of a business in terminal decline. But he's famously run Amazon as a deliberately low-margin, growth oriented firm. If he runs the newspaper in anything like that same spirit, it'll be an excellent thing for the world whether or not it works out as a business. But to be honest, we have no real idea what he intends to do with the paper.
Nor does anyone else, including Bezos (or so he says). Should be fun to see play out.