Alberto Mingardi  

Where no publisher has gone before

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As he already revolutionized logistics, floored old fashioned retailers, and made a bookstore a thriving business, expectations are very high for Jeff Bezos as the new publisher of Washington Post. Certainly newspapers might need a little bit of creative destruction, particularly the creative part that seems to be missing in this field. Much has been written on Bezos lately. The Economist points towards a growing interest in the newspaper industry by conspicuous investors:

He (Bezos) is not alone in showing interest in the sector. Last year Warren Buffett's firm, Berkshire Hathaway, bought a host of newspapers from Media General. The headline for the state of America's newspapers may be a grim one, but some of them are successfully charging more for their content, either online or in print (by raising cover prices). Last year total revenue for American newspapers only declined 2%. Some think the newspaper industry may be finally reaching a bottom. Perhaps Mr Bezos is one of them.

As The Economist suggests that newspapers may have reached the bottom, and thus a rebound of some sort may be in sight, Virginia Postrel takes a very different perspective. In a compelling column that refers to her experience as the editor of Reason magazine, she argues that

Now the future of journalism depends on the model I knew so well in the 1990s: patrons and amateurs. The patrons underwrite a relatively small cadre of professionals, while the amateurs use other sources of income to subsidize their work.

This seems to me a not implausible forecast of the evolution of the news market, as the Internet is shaping it. Sources of news are more varied and diverse, we tend to devote an increasing share of our time to read bloggers vis-à-vis newspaper columnists, Google Reader may be gone, but we cook our daily news meal largely by ourselves. The newspaper is essentially a blend of information and comments, brought together by some professionals to the benefit of their readers: these professionals are those that traditionally selected "All the News That's Fit to Print", to the benefit of their reader. This role they play is by and large questioned by alternative media.

But blogs don't belong to Mars and newspapers don't belong to Venus. We'll necessarily see in the coming years profound changes, but the future of the printed word isn't necessarily gloomy. Postrel suggests that what is in crisis is an advertisment-based business model, whereas patrons and amateurs may actually give us a rejuvenated, more reader-oriented journalism.

Journalism supported by patrons and amateurs will, of necessity, be more diverse: in content, style, viewpoint, reliability and organizational forms.

To be clear, I won't bet that the likes of Bezos will do away with profits. They do certainly need profits as signals, particularly as they are engaged in a very difficult endeavor. But after all patrons have been historically very important in supporting culture of all kinds--therefore I do not see any reason why they shouldn't try with daily news. A wider variety of business models, particularly for a business that has problems in imagining its own future, is certainly a plus. Bezos may be more interested in the Post for prestige reasons, for growing his reputation, or just for a romantic attachment to paper, but if he brings his ingenuity in the sector he may still teach some lessons to others--who may pick them up entrepreneurially, and try to work on them to extract profits. Thanks to Mr Bezos, the future of newspapers already looks brighter to many. We'll see.


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CATEGORIES: Business Economics



COMMENTS (7 to date)

Even though Bezos's other venture Amazon.com is now tainted (providing the CIA a private cloud infrastructure), his experience with and possibly antagonistic sentiments toward government could find their way into the Washington Post, in some way.

The U.S. is becoming very totalitarian now, and increasingly those who criticize the Rulers are being silenced or jailed for their disobedience, while the mainstream journals (such as WaPo), pundits and intellectuals continue to defend the State and smear its critics.

At the time of America's founding, the Anti-Federalists made great use of print media including merely handing out pamphlets to get their ideas across. So, despite all the other forms of communications available now, the modern anti-State dissenters will need any possible allies who control various means of mass communication.

Fazal Majid writes:

Bezos bought himself political influence, to deter the kind of antitrust scrutiny Apple and book publishers endured recently. Given Amazon's questionable practices, e.g. selling eBooks at a loss to gain a near-monopoly, such scrutiny is inevitable when Bezos' chums in the Obama administration leave power.

Jacob A. Geller writes:

Malcolm Gladwell made the following point recently on the Bill Simmons Report (I'm paraphrasing):

You'd think that as an industry or firm sank deeper into decline, they would become less conservative and try out new things. But instead you see the opposite -- they become *more* conservative, and retreat inwards towards the most basic, pure form of what they do, eschewing the truly high-risk, high-reward paths.

Questions:

1) Do you think that this is true?

2) The Graham family did try new things with the Washington Post, yet it lost money every year since. Do you see Jeff Bezos doing anything different from them?

My answers are 1) um, what about the NYTimes paywall, blogs on newspaper websites, and other innovations? and 2) I can't see what Bezos could do with a newspaper that's so radically different from the Graham family did... but I freely admit that that might reflect more on my limited imagination than on the limits of what Bezos can do with the Post.

MingoV writes:

Printed newspapers mostly are the media of older Americans. Most will cease publication within twenty years. Some will hang on with revenues drawn from their internet news sites: these will appeal to younger men who like to read about sports.

The web sites of national network and cable news programs will become the dominant media for news (displacing television). The news sites will become more garish: moving text, multiple running videos, dozens of links, many photos, etc. The news web sites will have versions customized for handheld devices (such as iPods). The national news sites will employ few journalists. Most stories will be purchased from wire services and from local news sites. The national news sites are likely to use multiple paid "columnists" who will communicate via video in lecture or debate modes.

Communities will replace their newspapers with web news sites, and those sites may employ local journalists. Some will be profitable.

News aggregation sites and blogs will increase in numbers; and total readership will increase. Almost none of those sites will belong to professional journalists, though some of them will outperform "professional" news sites.

hana writes:

Jeff Bezos has purchased a brand. He believes the value to be captured from the "Washington Post" greatly exceeds the amount he paid for it.

With Amazon's Kindle, and the ability to deliver a first quality News app to the Kindle, no one should be surprised by this purchase.

If Mr. Bezos's politics, and those that subscribe to this service, are represented by this purchase so much the better. He will then have created and expanded the market place and value of a well known brand.

The support of wealthy people to the intellectual broadcast market should be welcomed and encouraged.

Tom West writes:

I'm a pessimist. That newspapers *ever* succeeded was a coincidental marrying of ads & news used simply as a way of reaching eyeballs.

As usual, the internet has disaggregated the revenue generating from useful service, causing the useful service to wither.

Reporting is expensive, and I don't think that enough people value what we used to think of as "news" to allow it to survive in the long term and that number of people goes down every year. (I'm among the majority - I don't think there's a newspaper that's worth $500/year to subscribe.)

This is exacerbated by the fact that you'll always be able to get USA Today level coverage for free. It's the investigative reporting that's expensive.

Of course citizen reporting will help, but amateurs can't replace professionals. I think we'll see a strong upswing in both political and private corruption as the threat of exposure by reporters continues to decrease.

Luckily we won't find out about it, so maybe it won't feel so bad :-).

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