Jeff Bezos’ customer-focused vision won’t save journalism

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Jeff Bezos

So much for that momentary spark of optimism that Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos would save journalism by relaunching his Washington Post newspaper, with a fabulous tech-led business model and leading the way for a resurgent newspaper industry.

In his first TV interview since the Washington Post purchase, Bezos said that he bought the newspaper as a personal investment and to support an “important institution.” Katherine Fung reported on Huffington Post:

Speaking to CNN correspondent Dan Simon, [Bezos] said that that he was hopeful about the road ahead and his ability to contribute to the organisation…

“I’m hopeful that I can help from a distance in part by providing runway for them to do a series of experiments, in part through bringing some of the philosophy that we have used at Amazon to the Post.”

He added that the key to Amazon’s success has been focusing on the customer.

Hopes that Bezos’ tech acumen would reverse the misfortunes of the newspaper sector, were a key theme in news stories that announced his US$250-million purchase of the Washington Post.

It’s clear now that Bezos didn’t have any bright ideas going into the deal and he still doesn’t have a plan. But that’s not a bad thing because that doesn’t mean that he might not find one or three great ideas eventually.

The customer-centric newsroom

In the meantime, the Washington Post management has to figure out how to implement the boss’s credo of “focus on the customer.”

Does this mean give the customer what they want to read? Should editors choose stories that will be popular? It would mean giving up editorial control to the fickle themes of popular culture, and the loss of an editorial voice — the single most important feature that distinguishes and defines any newspaper.

Would a customer-centric newsroom transform the venerable institution into a newspaper with an almost permanent Miley Cyrus front page, and a bus/tech section always about Apple and Google?

Does this mean give the reader what they want to read? Should editors choose stories that will be popular?

That’s a tough directive because it would mean giving up editorial control to the fickle themes of popular culture, and the loss of an editorial voice — the single most important feature that distinguishes and defines any newspaper.

Would a customer-centric newsroom result in a newspaper with an almost permanent Miley Cyrus front page, and a business/tech section that always reports on Apple and Google?

Pageview journalism…

Editorial decisions made on the basis of giving the customer what they want to read won’t sit well in the Washington Post newsroom. But it’s probably not what Bezos meant to say.

Focusing on the customer is wonderful if you are a retailer because it’s easy to know what they want: low prices, speedy delivery, quick resolution of problems. The newspaper business is different.

  • Customers of newspapers often don’t know what they want but they know it when they see it.
  • They like well written, well researched news stories; they like newspapers that are involved in social issues; they like good coverage of their neighborhoods. And they like the unexpected, newspaper readers love to be thrilled and educated. And they like to have things to talk about and share with others.
  • In every newspaper the focus has to be on the community. And a mission to help tell the stories of the individuals and groups in that community, fairly and accurately; so that we can all get along and so we won’t seem so strange to each other.
  • Every newspaper should also teach its community how to produce media. How to report on stories, interviews, video shooting, editing, etc. Media literacy is an important skill to have and by teaching high standards of media creation, along with the ethical standards, there will be larger numbers of citizen journalists working with community groups and local businesses, helping to tell each other’s stories. And the newspaper can provide the publishing platform.

I’ve got lots more ideas for Bezos coming up…


This article by Tom Foremski originally appeared on Silicon Valley Watcher, a Burn Media publishing partner.

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  • Shitesh Arihunta

    I feel like there’s something wrong with the middle of this article, between “The customer-centric newsroom” and “Pageview journalism…”

  • Pingback: This Week in #Journalism: Kick-Ass Journalism à la Carte | ericancker

  • Manfred Higgs

    Bezos is not the kind of person who buys something without a plan in mind even if he is declining to talk about that plan.

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