Jeff Bezos has bought The Washington Post. At $250 million it is a snip – when viewed as a fraction of his personal fortune – for one of the great remaining ego trips.
That is what owning a big newspaper is all about; always has been, always will be. That doesn’t make it a bad thing, without the egos of the Beaverbrooks, the Northcliffes and Murdoch we, in the UK, wouldn’t have the most vigorous press in the world. Without the ego of the Graham’s (Washington Post) or the Ochs Sulzbergers (New York Times), America’s most famous paper would be the National Enquirer.
But newspapers are seen as emphatically yesterday’s medium. That’s why the hacking scandal finally forced Rupert Murdoch’s hand into spinning them off from the ‘new’ media entertainment assets. That’s why every newspaper in the known world is struggling and wonders if it will still exist in five years from now.
Does Bezos bring salvation? He certainly brings money, though some might say his fellow Internet guzillionaires with their wacky backing of android mining, Eezy-rockets space travel and electric super cars, are on to safer bets.
But Bezos is not a man who likes to make money disappear – witness Amazon’s second biggest business line; exploiting territorial sales tax loopholes. So can he ‘save newspapers’?
Online shopping – originally for books – gave the customer what they most wanted from a shopping experience; the ability to find, peruse and purchase, without what they didn’t want; going to the shops.
Not so long ago, some speculated that the entrance of Amazon and fellow Netters, like Google, to the TV market, would mark the beginning of the end of ‘traditional’ broadcast and pay-TV. Seems unlikely now. They have made a business by making the same type of content as had already proved popular available more conveniently to its consumer. There is no tectonic shift in consumer attitude and taste, just new and convenient ways to consume; ways that have to be marginally priced or users will forgo the convenience.
Can newspapers be re-packaged and sold in a more convenient way, or have their consumers really moved on in a way that TV viewers haven’t?
Of course, newspapers are no use for the news anymore – but that’s been true since the invention of the radio. So why are they condemned now? There are two massive dangers and both have been brought about by their own hands.
If owning newspapers is an exercise in ego, then so is reading them. You read a newspaper because you buy in to its world view, its Zeitgeist. It is a reflection of you and you are a reflection of it. You may not agree with everything it says but you wouldn’t still be there if you disagreed with everything. But more than that, it is a binary reflection of outlook, of attitude, of taste.
The massive mistake newspapers have made is to somehow think this trick they pull-off day after day (alongside, by the way, the industrial miracle of making and distributing a paper every day), isn’t the product of lot of very talented people. If you cut good people and leave it to a handful of their young relatives on internships (in the hope it is in the blood?), the quality will suffer, the magic will be broken, the reflection will be distorted, the reader will notice – even if subconsciously, and will switch off.
The reason so many cuts are being made is because most papers are ‘drowning not waving’ with plunging sales and advertising take. And part of the reason for this was the bizarre suicide pact when they all decided the way to fight declining sales and embrace the Internet was to give all their content away online. This is not a mistake Bezos would have made. He didn’t start Amazon with the world’s biggest-ever book giveaway.
Today, papers are trying to row back with pay walls, but it is a long haul and they go on cutting content investment at the same time. It can’t work. You can’t expect consumers to transfer to a new format and pay for it when the goods aren’t as good as you were giving away a few months ago.
If Bezos grasps this uncomfortable truth and puts his expertise into new and convenient ways for you to get your chosen papers’ content, while simultaneously putting his money into the expertise to maintain that content’s character, then he may yet save the newspaper industry. Good luck Jeff.