The news that Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon and one of the most watched figures in Silicon Valley (alongside Google and Apple’s leading figures) recently purchased the Washington Post for a cash figure of $250 million has been greeted with varying degrees of excitement, shock and bemusement by the wider media world. There’s a generally positive undertone to most pieces, with editorials and opinion pieces drawing attention to the fact that newspapers still lag behind the rest of media in shaking off ailing, unprofitable business models designed for a world in which print was the only option available to consumers.
Reuters reported that Bezos plans to bring his expertise in e-commerce and digital publishing to tackle the perennial problems that the newspaper industry has been grappling with for years, like falling circulation numbers and advertising revenues. Silicon Valley seems to be optimistic he has the requisite experience with technology as a whole to be truly innovative in this space.
In spite of this, there’s still a degree of uncertainty in some corners surrounding what exactly motivated Bezos, and even a fair degree of dismissive scepticism regarding the move. What underlines this uncertainty is whether this move is part of any wider publishing strategy, given that Bezos purchase the Washington Post as an individual, not on behalf of Amazon. As a result it would seem the serial entrepreneur is (at least in part) approaching the purchase as something of a personal challenge; alongside something of a personal status symbol for the stratospherically rich.
In terms of his personal outlook, Bezos is a man firmly committed to the idea of a future in which digital trumps print, confirmed in an interview with the German paper Berliner Zeitung last year. When asked whether he read printed papers he replied:
One thing is for sure: In 20 years to come we will not have printed newspapers any more. And if, then only as luxury products that certain hotels offer their guests as an extra service. Printed newspapers will not be of common use in 20 years.
He also made some rather prescient comments, brought up <a href=https://blog.yudu.com/tag/monetization-models/before on this blog, about how monetization models publishers adopt must be developed under the assumption that consumer expectation of free content, a paradigm the internet developed, is not going anywhere.
It is like this: People are not ready to pay for news on the web, and this will not change again. But we have found out that people are willing to pay for their newspaper subscriptions on their tablets. Tablets will further influence our everyday life. Soon every household will have more than one tablet. This will be normal. And these trends will strengthen newspapers.
It’s highly likely these comparatively unorthodox attitudes for an institution like the Post will translate into radical action with Bezos again signalling that the newspaper is due for a large scale shake-up, stating in a memo to staff that, “There will of course be change at The Post over the coming years”. It’s a veritable “watch this space” for anyone interested in whether the decline of the traditional newspaper can be turned around by a technology-led business strategy.
Speculation aside, the most salient message about the Bezos purchase of the Washington Post is one thing above all others: It underscores the damage done to newspapers by their inflexibility in reacting to technology-led change. For the past decade and more, newspaper publishers have, asides from a few imitatively applied innovations like paywalls, left their business strategy on autopilot, confident that, in spite of falling circulation numbers, subscription numbers and advertising numbers, their status as the prima facie disseminators of high quality news, editorial content and investigative journalism would remain undiminished.
This approach has failed outside of a few high profile examples, leaving the door open to enterprising men like Bezos and, if the reports are to be believed, Michael Bloomberg at some point too. The writing is on the wall for major print publishers in a stark way: Ignore the growth of the digital landscape at your peril.