With Post purchase, Bezos has chance to remake newspaper model

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Jeff Bezos made it clear in founding Amazon.com that he can compete in the marketplace.

We’ll just have to wait and see if he can, and will, do the same thing in the marketplace of ideas — that equally combative zone protected and preserved by the First Amendment’s provision for a free press.

The historic sale of The Washington Post to Bezos, announced Aug. 5, is most noteworthy in that First Amendment sense, even beyond the already-rising sea of speculation over how its new owner will move it from traditional ink-on-paper distribution to the inevitable one involving electrons.

The First Amendment’s protection for a free press doesn’t identify any particular owners or even what kind of press gets shelter. But what it does provide for is a news media that functions as the proverbial watchdog on government, ultimately requiring it be a defender, informer and surrogate for citizens who need information on how their government and public officials are functioning.

The Washington Post, once a lightweight also-ran in a long-lost, multi-newspaper era in D.C., built a reputation as one of the nation’s foremost newspapers in the 80 years it was owned by the Graham family. The Watergate scandal, which the Post uncovered and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, summons up a high point in national journalism in the last 50 years.

The paper’s leaders were leaders in the industry, from the Grahams as outspoken and courageous publishers, to the inimitable Ben Bradlee, that rare editor whose fame spread beyond the trade, to the unique reporter-movie hero category inhabited only by a few and dominated for more than a generation by Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Certainly the newspaper had its critics, chief among them being those who said it sacrificed objectivity for a liberal voice. And it publicly stumbled at times — handing back a Pulitzer for a story it learned too late was far more fiction than fact.

What made, and makes, the Post truly unique, even with such strong competitors as The New York Times and the network news operations, was, and is, that it held the government accountable on a daily basis as only a local newspaper can. From relatively mundane matters affecting and afflicting the federal bureaucracy, to the highest reaches of nationwide policy and national security, those were hometown topics, with sources in neighborhoods, as well as in Congress.

And that’s where Bezos’s highest challenge will be, in terms of the 45 words that include freedom of the press. He’s free to take the paper where he will — no government decree or legislation mandates his next moves. Will he be noted for quality, quantity, or neither? Can he sustain that intense focus on policy and process in an era of news as celebrity fluff and pundit chatter?

On “CBS This Morning” Aug. 6, author and journalist Ken Auletta said that one immediate tactic might be to make the Post available for free on Amazon’s Kindle reader devices — a huge boost in potential readers at no real cost. A story in The New York Times sounded a warning that Bezos, whom it described as having “a sort of libertarian bent,” also “will now have a microphone as powerful as anyone in Washington and outside the West Wing.”

Bezos does have a chance to be the landmark 21st century owner: Someone with financial pockets deep enough to sustain the quality of a major enterprise like the Post, while it and others search for a long-term solution to lost revenues that fled online where Amazon is preeminent. He touched on both areas — journalism and the future — in a note to Post staffers:

“The values of The Post do not need changing. The paper’s duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners. We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes. When we do, we will own up to them quickly and completely,” Bezos wrote, also noting that he will not run the paper on a day-to-day basis.

As to what’s ahead, he told his staff, “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. … 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’s success with Amazon came from taking an old format — the mail-order catalog — and completely reshaping it to a new on-demand era, setting the pace in how businesses market, sell, ship and satisfy their customers.

The new owner also set out a similar plan for his newest enterprise, and with no small irony, it, too, builds on an old idea: “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.”

Perhaps the key to revitalizing American journalism’s economic base and editorial vigor is just that: going backward to go forward.

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