Bezos and the Post

My son wants to follow his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps into newspapering. Until last week, I feared he might just as gainfully launch a buggy whip business. Then Amazon founder Jeff Bezosdecided to spend some pocket change, $250 million of his estimated $25 billion net worth, to become a press baron.

Washington Post Co. chairman Donald Graham, son of the legendary Kay Graham, grandson of Eugene Meyer who bought the Post in a bankruptcy sale in 1933, and uncle of the present publisher, Katharine Weymouth, has always tried to do the right thing.  He has never let vanity get in his way.

He served in Viet Nam when he could have avoided the draft. He became a beat-trudging cop to get to know his readers and their city at street level. And when it became clear the family could not take the business from the analogue to the digital age, he went looking for someone who could.

The US newspaper industry is stuck between two eras.  Print circulation and ad revenues are collapsing while digital subscriptions and ad revenues, though picking up, are not doing so at anything like the pace needed to halt the industry’s downward spiral.

Enter Mr Bezos. Like Elon Musk, he dreams of colonizing space.  First he must build the necessary fortune on earth.  To which end, he has created a system to whet and more or less instantly gratify consumer desire for just about any legitimate product or service that can be delivered in a van or digitally.

Amazon is the world’s largest and most disruptive shopping mall. Need casing for boerewors? They even carry that. And once you’ve purchased it, they make a note and keep checking to see if you would like more or something else along the same lines.

Mr Bezos presumably has a few ideas on what to do with his acquisition, but he’s keeping them close leaving the rest of us to conjure with the possibilities.

What’s he really good at is persuading people people to buy stuff. What the news business needs is people willing to pay for news after years of getting it more or less for free. Here’s how Mr Bezos might do it.

He would offer packages of unique, value-added content, each made to order by a trusted brand – the Washington Post – and delivered seamlessly in whatever format, and on whatever schedule, you desired.  If you love the serendipity of reading a traditional newspaper, you could ask for a package designed with that in mind.

It would arrive with or, for a premium, without ads. What ads were sold would be of particular value to advertisers because specifically tailored to each customer’s wants by Amazon’s alogirithms. And as long as people wanted their daily package on newsprint, Mr Bezos would give it to them. Amazon knows how to deliver things.

Sadly for those with ink in their veins that probably won’t be an issue for too much longer. 63% of Americans aged between 30 and 49, and 71% of those under 30, now get most of their news online, according to a survey by the Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press released last week.

The only cohort whose members are more likely to rate newspapers above the Internet as their main source of news is the over-65 set, 43%of whom are now happily using social networks and so seem open to conversion.

Mr Bezos, having given us the Kindle and created the market for e-books, clearly has what it takes to hurry the process along. Not that he need to be in too much of a rush. He says he wants to experiment with his new toy and for now is keeping it separate from Amazon.  Unchivvied by shareholders, he has time to figure out how to incorporate news into his virtual megamall in ways that will delight his customers and rehabituate them to paying.

The Pew survey, done in June, found Americans quite conflicted about the press (who isn’t?), but there was clear support for two important propositions: first, news organizations are needed keep government from misbehaving (68%) and second, that journalists are more important than ever in helping  make sense of a complicated world (54%). So good journalism, whatever the medium, is wanted.

Mr Bezos is a good bet to make it profitable again. If he pulls it off, my son’s career choice won’t seem so quixotic after all.

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