By Steve Outing
Since Amazon.com founder (and multi-billionaire) Jeff Bezos isn’t talking specifically about what he’ll do now that he’s agreed to purchase the Washington Post and related properties for $250 million, it’s fair game for media pundits to speculate. And have they!
Like everyone else, not having the opportunity to pick Bezos’ brain directly about his plans, I’ll settle for listing some things that the billionaire entrepreneur and investor could do — actually, here are four suggestion for Bezos and his team as they come in to reinvent the Washington Post for the future.
- Speed up the demise of the print edition: Not that I expected this week’s news (it surprised me as much as anyone), but this is a profound moment in the evolution of the news industry. A digital-only success story with no legacy-business thinking to sway his decisions, Bezos can be dramatic in his moves with the Post. The printed newspaper continues its slide, and will continue to do so as those who still prefer “the feel of paper” die. (Let’s be blunt.) Bezos can continue to allow the Post to be printed on paper, but increase subscription fees and street-sale prices to cover real costs plus some profit. Faced with a steep premium to keep that nostalgic “feel of paper,” many Post readers will transition to digital consumption rather than abandon the brand, and the print edition will slide faster to oblivion. (The only other person I can think of with the mindset to make a similarly bold move in the newspaper industry is John Paton, CEO of Digital First Media. But Paton, because he has a stable of many newspapers across the U.S. to oversee, many of them small, is unlikely to move as fast as can Bezos. Paton will kick the digital ball further down the road than his industry peers, but he can’t kill or cripple print, yet, to speed up the digital transition. Paton has investors to answer to; Bezos does not, it appears, having used 1% of his personal fortune to buy the Post.)
- Reverse the hometown-news focus and compete again with the New York Times on the world stage: As the Post’s financial situation cratered in recent years, its leaders closed domestic bureaus in order to focus on being the hometown newspaper and online news source for the nation’s capital city. But being the “paper of record” for the capital city of the world’s largest superpower has its advantages, and the Post has kept going a number of foreign bureaus (third in number among newspaper companies behind the NY Times and the Wall Street Journal). Bezos could steer the company back into being a serious digital competitor with the NY Times nationally and internationally by investing in beefed-up international coverage, and reopening key domestic bureaus in cities where the intersection with D.C. politics is strongest (e.g., Los Angeles, entertainment industry; Miami, immigration issues; Silicon Valley, technology). With a decidedly digital focus, and executive bandwidth removed from the legacy print product, the Post could become a dominant player around the world. To borrow from their neighbor to the north, WashingtonPost.com could have “Washington Post” and “International Washington Post” digital editions. … Of course, this will require investment, but Bezos has the means that the Graham family did not to ride out a transitional period of financial losses, in the interest of the long term.
- Leverage Post talent to create content that people will pay for — e-books: Jeff Bezos knows how to sell e-books (and shorter versions, a.k.a. Kindle Singles), and how to create a user interface that makes impulsive purchases easy: One-click. (Amazon’s Kindle Store got me this morning; I purchased a photography book on a whim and reader recommendations, coming in via a personalized Amazon e-mail that reflects my interests based on past purchases of all sorts of products, not just books. A couple days ago I purchased Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs in Kindle format. And I’m not even a serious book junkie; it’s just so easy to make a purchase and get instant gratification.) … Meanwhile, the Washington Post has some of the top journalists in the world, rivaling the NY Times’ talent pool. Bezos’ ownership of the Post might even lure some Times folk to work for a reinvigorated Post. All that writing and photography talent is ripe for creating additional long-form content that gets distributed and sold on Amazon.com and other online stores rather than WashingtonPost.com. If, say, a Post correspondent/photojournalist team based in Afghanistan has a killer feature that’s on WashingtonPost.com, web/tablet/smartphone readers can be enticed to purchase the journalists’ book/e-book about the lives of Afghan children with one click to the Kindle Store. … Further, the Post can attract literary journalists (a dying breed?) to produce long-form work for the Post and e-books to sell in order to earn their keep. Many media observers have repeated over the years that news has become a commodity, not worth paying for, in the digital era. But the journalist-author — a Tom Wolfe or Jack London of the digital age, working for the Post — is one way out of the commodity-content business.
- Apply an “Amazon Prime” model to the Post: The WashingtonPost.com paywall. What should Bezos do about that? How about instead of copying the NY Times’ stopgap porous paywall, develop an irresistible “Amazon Prime”-like membership (automatically billed annually) for WashingtonPost.com? I mean, what’s not to like about Amazon Prime? Free shipping for Amazon.com purchases; a library of free streaming movies and TV shows; free borrowed e-books from the Kindle Lending Library (alas, only good if you own a genuine Kindle device), for a reasonable annual fee. … I’m not sure that WashingtonPost.com even needs a “paywall” if an attractive “membership” program is developed. After all, Post executives famously held out on the news-website paywall craze until only recently. … “Washington Post Prime” could include access to Post content across all devices; free Kindle Singles by Post journalists and discounts on full-length e-books; invitations to Post-sponsored events (free admission, discounted tickets, or guaranteed seating); free mobile and wearable-technology apps that non-members pay for; etc. A “Post Prime+” membership could, for a higher annual price, include a Kindle device that can be traded in for new models as they are introduced — as long as the Prime+ membership continues to be paid.
There are so many more good ideas to try with an Internet tycoon in charge and no investors with short-term motives to stifle experiments. I hope that Bezos will bring in a team of brilliant technologists and user-interface gurus to revamp WashingtonPost.com (which is too much like most every other newspaper website); modernize its digital publishing infrastructure and systems; and develop world-class mobile and beyond-mobile apps and services. That’s not meant to knock the technology talent already in place at the Post. But a Bezos-directed technology team can operate with a degree of power that current Post technologists could only have dreamed about.
(Private note to Jeff Bezos: With all the words and advice being tossed your way, it’s a long shot that you’ll see mine. But if you do, I’m in one of those career transition periods and am looking for some new challenges. Call me. )