The Man, the Medium and Message

Jeff Bezos has the business experience to keep the paper alive as a profitable business.

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A view of the Washington Post building on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013, in Washington. Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post for $250 million.

The news hit the nation's capital like a thunderbolt.

The venerable Washington Post, the newspaper that had toppled a president of the United States, had been sold. For $250 million. To an online entrepreneur. Who has no experience in the news business.

Actually the sale by the Graham family, who have owned the paper since Eugene Meyer bought it at a bankruptcy sale during the great depression, to Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos is a stroke of brilliance. Bezos doesn't have to understand the news business – and reportedly has committed to keeping the current management team in place at least for the time being. What he does understand is the Internet, which is what has been killing print journalism and newspapers for last decade.

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The question of media bias aside – and it is clear, at least to me, that it has also had a role in the decline of the newspaper as an American institution – there is so much information available on the Internet, and virtually for free, that the old economics of print journalism no longer hold. The business model is outdated. Some publications, like this magazine, have gone to an online only format utilizing advertising on the Web pages and a once-per-week edition produced for subscribers only and delivered as an easy-to-download, easy-to-read, password protected, hard-to-share pdf file or iPad app.

Others like the New York Times have flirted with the so-called "pay wall" only to go back and forth over it so many times that few subscribers can keep track of what they can see for free and what they must pay for. Even Rupert Murdoch, who may be the world's last great "newspaper baron" has had difficulty navigating the business end of his publications through the online world.

The problem is not that news gathering has changed; it's that the medium is transforming. The folks who made fortunes buying paper by the ton and ink by the barrel have yet to hit on an effective new business model that represents the path back to profitability. Over the last several decades the great, family-owned newspapers like the Chandlers' Los Angeles Times, the Binghams' Louisville Courier-Journal and the Bancrofts' Wall Street Journal have been sold to newspaper chains, many of which are kept alive only because they also own television stations and other profit centers that allow them to minimize the losses incurred by their daily broadsheets and tabloids. Even some of the chains are in trouble. The smaller but excellent Texas-based Belo Group was recently swallowed up by a larger fish and most people expect that, sooner or later, Charles and David Koch will add the Tribune chain of newspapers to their vast holdings, keeping them alive for at least a little while longer.

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Enter Bezos, who figured out how to sell things over the Internet and make a profit while doing it. His mighty Amazon.com, which went years before showing a profit, has changed American retailing on an order of magnitude equal to what the Sears catalog did after it was first introduced.

When you think about it thought, they are really the same thing minus the technology. One hundred and fifty years ago a person would get the catalog in the mail, pick out what they wanted – and it had everything – and send away for it. Same thing with Amazon, except that it moves much faster.

Print journalism remains a vibrant, essential part of the American media complex. All the blogging in the world is not going to change that, even though there are some very fine blog-based journalism operations on line today. The relationship between reporters and editors of all kinds produces thoroughly developed stories that can move, compel, horrify and elate readers – they can produce almost every human emotion one can name. That is not changing, at least not I any way reflected by the sale of the Post to Bezos. What is changing is the medium on which such stories are to be viewed. The Grahams have done a smart thing, turning their paper over to a person who understands how to keep it alive as a profitable business or at least may have more interesting, out-of-the-box ideas for success than they were willing to try.

Rather than mourn the passing of the Post, which isn't going anywhere, journalists should cheer its potential rebirth. We've seen this before – the advent of radio, television, the cable networks and the so-called 24-hour news cycle have all forced changes on print journalism. The Internet is just another in a long line of challenges the world's oldest form of reportage must and will overcome.

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