A News Frontier
There will of course be change at the Post over the coming years. 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.
- Jeff Bezos, Aug. 5 memo to the staff of the Washington Post
This is an accurate, able summary of the state of things for newspapers and the news business around the world. Let's take this little, explosive paragraph apart piece by piece.
Change at the Post: For the last 30 years, every newspaper in the world has held on to the rails through wave after wave of change. You have to be a hardy soul to want to do journalism and get paid - or own journalism and make a profit. Bezos knows he will have to ax once-sacrosanct departments and functions and create novel ones, end old positions and create new ones. His staff knows, too.
The Internet is transforming almost every element of the news business: A no-duh statement - except for that almost. In all this mess, the thing that both saves and damns is that you can't automate quite everything about news gathering. You still need people. A lot of them. Until machines can observe, interpret, find the right places to be, the right people to talk to, experts, participants, those who rejoice and those who object, you will still need people - a lot of expensive biological organisms gifted by God and evolution with prefrontal lobes and exquisite minds. Bezos created Amazon, a warehouse empire with staffs that are small but brilliant. That may be a parallel for a future Post.
Shortening news cycles: Worldwide communication has made news cycles instant and 24/7. This, maybe more than anything else, has rushed the printed-on-paper delivery system most quickly toward obsolescence. Rapid delivery systems, to be sure, have been with us since the telegraph (1832), radio (1901), and TV (at least since the 1939 New York World's Fair). Why didn't newspapers buckle then? Maybe because slower delivery systems offer something rapid ones can't: time for thought and analysis. (Note what happens whenever truly huge news happens, such as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks: People buy papers.) Still, the thoughtfulness advantage has not saved slower delivery systems. Bezos needs to find a way to be both fast and excellent.
Eroding long-reliable revenue sources: The whole world wants news. The challenge is to get paid for gathering it. People can get quick-shot headlines and videos for free at thousands of venues, undercutting the business model. The few large news gatherers prospering on the Internet have products you can't get anywhere else and refuse to give them away. (Is the Wall Street Journal a good example, or a sui generis outlier? They've been brilliant, no doubt about it, and they have brought their audience, whom they know well, right along.) Bezos wants to make things people will pay for, and news should be able to deliver it. Or so we've been saying for 30 years now.
Enabling new kinds of competition: That's both within the industry (from celeb-gossip sites such as TMZ, aggregators like the Huffington Post, small investigative venues such as TruthDig, Salon, and Slate), but also from without: online gaming, streaming TV and movies, e-books. Bezos knows all about it. He invented a new kind of competition that more or less scuttled the local bookstore.
Can a Bezos-owned Post move into those new competitive realms? Bezos is in a great position to make the Post a news "org" with a full product line. His canny, bristling web-biz model is in place, selling not only reading products such as the Kindle Single, but also CDs, earphones, baby prams, hammer drills. Imagine a streaming news channel the whole world loves. An e-book brand. Apps like the splendid World Figures, by the Economist. Films like those CNN or Al Jazeera America are now making. HuffPost and Google stuff, only with the still-valued WashPost brand.
Some of which bear little or no news-gathering costs: Hard to compete with pirates. Folks just steal out there. Read, rewrite (or not!), post. Bam. Aggregation, although powerful, is often morally unconscious. You can design a news-bot, for almost nothing, that roams the web mindless like a virtual Roomba. Here's where Bezos can leverage that WashPost brand. It stands for judgment and integrity, not widely associated with the Internet. It's a flag no pirate can wave. His assignment: to translate that to the High Seas of the Web. As they say in Spanish, vamos a ver.
There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy: When Jeff Bezos tells this to a gathering of the finest journalists in the world, you know that he himself (a) doesn't know the way and (b) assumes the future will be a bodysurf on a lava flood.
We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment: Bezos is an inventor and an experimenter. That's the great part, which promises to make his ownership of the Post worth watching. But the words above are the equivalent of Bette Davis, as Margo Channing in All About Eve, saying, "Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night." Bezos, and everyone at the Post, find themselves, like the speaker in Dante's Inferno, in the midst of life's road, in a savage wood.
John Timpane is The Inquirer media editor/writer. Contact him at 215-854-4406 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @jtimpane.