It is now a week since Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, announced that he was buying the Washington Post, in what could be the most exciting case of convergence between the new media and the old since the merger of AOL with Time Warner. But how might Bezos re-launch this venerable flagship of U.S. journalism? And what could his ownership of the Post mean for news businesses around the world?
These may seem strange questions for a column devoted mostly to controversies in public policy and economics, but newspapers today are a declining industry comparable to the steel and shipbuilding industries in the 1980s, and employ even more people at higher wages. Newspapers are therefore of great economic significance, not to mention their importance to democracy. Yet public discussion often assumes that journalism is technologically doomed. The Internet, it seems, is ineluctably turning news and analysis from a thriving industry, gainfully employing millions on decent incomes, into an unpaid hobby for philanthropists or self-promoters who will earn their living by other means.
From an economic standpoint, this fatalism is unjustified. If quality news and analysis have significant value to customers, then the people providing these services will eventually find ways to get paid. It is often claimed that the news has become worthless because Internet distribution involves zero marginal cost, but this is poor economics. The true cost of news lies not in distribution, but in the research, composition, selection and editing required for high quality writing. These costs are as high as ever today.
The real challenge to newspapers, therefore, is not the idealistic Internet cliché that ”information wants to be free.” It is the failure of traditional media companies to devise business models that turn the new distribution technology to their advantage. Historically, such failure is not surprising. Just as the railroad companies failed to adapt to cars and competed themselves into bankruptcy, traditional media moguls have proved clueless in harnessing the Internet. This is why the news businesses must look for salvation to managers such as Bezos, who treat the Internet neither as a curse nor as a libertarian utopia, but rather as a very efficient mechanism for getting consumers to spend money.
So far, Bezos has said little about his plans for the Washington Post. The few hints he offered in an open letter to editorial staff had the familiar naivety of the tyro news proprietor who thinks he can reinvent journalism: “Our touchstone will be readers, understanding what they care about — government, local leaders, restaurant openings, scout troops, businesses, charities, governors, sports — and working backwards from there.” As if that were not what all newspapers have always done.