A Future the Post Can Believe In

Jeff Bezos may be just the person to lead the Washington Post back to greatness.

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Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos speaks at the introduction of the new Amazon Kindle Fire HD and Kindle Paperwhite personal devices on Sept. 6, 2012, in Santa Monica, Calif.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is paying $250 million for the Washington Post, though Amazon will not own any part of the Post.

Much has been written this past week about the sales of the Washington Post and the Boston Globe for $250 million and $70 million, respectively.

Just to put this in some kind of perspective, according to BaseballRef.com, Alex Rodriguez has been paid more than $353 million dollars so far, with a possible $114 million to come. And last week we learned that Saks Fifth Avenue has been sold to Hudson's Bay for $2.9 billion. To be fair, A-Rod brought in fans and Saks has a lot of valuable property, but really?

Of course, the Washington Post Co. still owns, and is trying to sell, its building. It's still holding fast to its profitable enterprises like Kaplan and TV and cable channels that bring in needed funds. But my guess is that the $80 million that is listed by the D.C. government for that office building is way on the low side. So bricks and mortar and baseball are worth more than storied newspapers.

Part of this is clearly the rapidly changing business model for print:  it's the advertising stupid! You can't be losing eyeballs, see serious subscription losses (nearly 50 percent for the Post), go through a bad recession and keep the same old business assumptions in place.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

But I have to maintain that a certain amount of this is arrogance and resting on the laurels and accolades of the past. Dorothy, this isn't Watergate anymore!

I remember talking to my wise friend, Washington Post stalwart and star, Bob Kaiser, when they began their advertising campaign to increase Post subscriptions many years ago. The slogan that they put in place on every ad was and still is: "If you don't get it, you don't get it."

I told Bob I hated it – I thought it was arrogant and condescending and pompous. He told me that it tested well, and since I believe in excellent research and testing, rather than gut reactions, I trusted they knew what they were doing.

But I now believe that slogan was part of a larger problem. The Post exists in an area of tremendous population growth  –  the DC metro area gained a million people over the last decade, now up to 5.8 million. At the same time, the Post's daily circulation went from about 762,000 in 2000 to about 474,000 today. And this is basically in a one-newspaper town starved for news, especially about government and politics.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

The Post didn't change. They hardly had any competition from other print papers to keep them on their toes; they were not innovative and cutting edge. The move to the web was sloppy and unbelievably hard to navigate. The page kept shutting down, at least on my iPad. The New York Times was much more user-friendly than the Post web site. 

And, of course, there was the problem of having to keep cutting staff and operations to meet the bottom line concerns. Maybe having Kaplan and their other media cash cows also did them no favors – it did not force them to innovate and change with the times as fast as they might have.

But, fundamentally, because they were the only game in town after the Washington Star folded, they ceased to believe they had to fight and prove just how good they really were. They engaged the growing populace in the D.C. metro area with a slogan that implied that they would not "get it" unless they subscribed to the Post, when everyone knew that all you had to do was to go to your keyboard. You could "get it" so much easier with each passing day.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should There Be Such a Thing as 'Reporter's Privilege'?]

It wasn't about putting down your audience, it was about lifting them up. What was fun and exciting and interesting in the Post that would make you want to subscribe? What could you learn from the Post quickly and easily that you would have to search for online? Why was this such a good value? What made the Post different from the newspapers of the past?

My guess is that Jeff Bezos may be what the Post needs, just as The New Republic has been revitalized and reinvigorated by Facebook billionaire Chris Hughes. Pick up a copy of the New Republic ; check out the graphics, look at the messaging, read the insightful articles. This is a changed magazine and it is truly modern and interesting.

I have been a subscriber to the Post for nearly forty years; I gave my future wife a subscription when she lived in Minnesota as an engagement present during Watergate in 1973-74. She loved getting those papers, even a couple of days late. I couldn't afford a ring, but I could afford the Washington Post! There is nothing I would like to see more than a strong, vibrant, exciting paper now and in the future. I am hopeful and I am rooting for them.

  • Read Laura Chapin: The 2016 GOP Presidential Primary Is Going to Be a Cannibalistic Train Wreck
  • Read Peter Roff: Liberal Bias Is Killing Traditional Media – Can Jeff Bezos Save It?
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad