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I recently took part in NPR’s “To the Point” an hour-long current affairs program hosted by Warren Olney, an award-winning veteran journalist, on the topic of the Jeff Bezos’s buyout of the Washington Post.”
Here are some of the most pressing issues, that came out of the show:
- There seems to be an impression that Bezos’ technical acumen can save the Washington Post and the newspaper industry.
- No one knows Bezos’ plan of action, probably because he doesn’t have a plan, yet.
- There’s been a lack of critical analysis of the deal in the days following its announcement. I wondered what was a worse sign of the decline in American journalism: the lack of critical thinking, or a belief in tech billionaires coming to save the newspaper industry?
- One of the guests spoke about short term thinking at the Washington Post and that there was wasn’t much long term strategy, or focus on innovation, or launching businesses such as Craigslist, or Angie’s List.
Here’s the rub: it wasn’t a lack of long term thinking that led to the demise of the Washington Post. There was nothing that the owners of the newspaper could do because they were facing the disruptive technologies of the Internet, and the web is a publishing technology. [Disruptive technologies disrupt.]
The internet made Craigslist possible. On its own, it takes out more than US$16-billion a year from the classified ads industry. Bear in mind that this is a sector that was worth US$20-billion a year in 2000 and it helped fund journalism.
It only takes one Craigslist, just 35 people to run a classified ads service for more than 300 cities. Every newspaper could’t create their own Craigslist, or Angie’s List. You only need one of them.
You have to, “Follow the money” — the classic Washington Post line from the movie “All the President’s Men” — if you want to understand the economics of the newspaper business.
The newspaper industry won’t be saved by technology. The problem of creating a sustainable news industry is not because we don’t have the right app, just yet, and that Bezos and his geek army of developers will whip something up. Yet there’s broad belief that Bezos tech background is what will save the newspaper industry.
The newspaper industry can be saved but it needs to be done at scale, the Washington Post cannot do it by itself.
I believe very strongly that Bezos will try to save the newspaper industry — he didn’t buy the Washington Post just for the influence it gives him and Amazon. Bezos has a sense of destiny and if he can develop a sustainable business model for high quality news organizations then he will have saved democracy. That would be more than a feather in his cap, that’s a whole headdress.
It will be a much harder thing to do than simply giving billions of dollars away — as his Seattle neighbor Bill Gates is doing. Historians will measure the two billionaires against each other and one will eclipse the other. Which one will it be?
Here’s the show.