There's something in the news business that everyone calls "holy (bleep)!" stories, because unlike most things in life that you can see coming from miles away like a slow freight train, these are the rare things that make you blurt out, "Holy (bleep)!" There were certainly a lot of expletives flying in newsrooms across the country when e-mail alerts and tweets started bouncing around that Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com and icon of the dot-com era, was buying the Washington Post, icon of the pre-dot-com era. for $250 million. Was it a "holy (bleep)" story for the rest of America that doesn't work for a newspaper? I don't know, and neither does Jeff Bezos, which is part of what makes this whole gambit so interesting.
I can tell you that the general reaction among journalists is one of excitement. Why? Bezos has revolutionized the book world (for better or worse) and retailing in general with Amazon; he was Time's Person of the Year in 1999, and his reputation as a brilliant innovator and disruptor has stayed intact, even as many other start-ups from that era have disappeared. So surely if anyone can bring a storied franchise like the newspaper of 1970s-glory-days Woodward and Bernstein (pictured above) into the 21st Century, it's Bezos, right? Right?
Maybe. I like his odds better than most. (Full disclosure: I've written two -- two! -- Kindle Singles for Amazon.) But, and I'm trying really hard not to be cynical, certainly this is a case of what happens when the immovable object (traditional newsrooms) collides with the irresistible force (modern Internet billionaire.) Today, August 5, 2013, no one yet has come up with the idea that will save legacy news orgs -- and that includes Jeff Bezos. None of what made newspapers newspapers in the 20th Century -- the ability to monopolize advertising for an entire metro area by owning an expensive printing press and a fleet of trucks, and using those bottomless profits to pay for journalism that has great civic worth but little intrinsic economic value -- translates to the electronic world of the 21st Century that Bezos helped create. And there's no one or two or six tweaks that even a genius can make that will change that.
"There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy," Bezos said in a letter to Washington Post employees. "We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment." In other words, Jeff Bezos is going to try to figure this thing out on the fly.
Just like the rest of us. God speed.