Mr. Bezos Buys the Post: Will More Money = Better Journalism?

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This topic contains 12 replies, has 6 voices, and was last updated by  Scott Horvath 8 years, 2 months ago.

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  • #179681

    Dave Hebert

    This discussion is brought to you by the Federal Communicators Network. No endorsement expressed or implied.

    The Washington Post, one of America’s flagship newspapers, is now an Amazon product, more or less.

    There a number of ways this will likely change the targeting of Post content and advertising, and that newspaper itself, along with other outlets, is covering those possibilities better than I could.

    What I wonder is if more stable financial backing and (theoretically) more income will lead to better journalism.

    Here’s what I mean: Our news media culture, on both the supply and demand side, is increasingly interested in pop culture and opinion. A foundational element of our democracy, however, is a news media dedicated to seeking objective accountability for people and institutions of power. This kind of journalism is less glamorous, more difficult, and much more important.

    If injecting the Post with Amazon money means that more people will get paid for hard reporting, fact checking, and copy editing, then please keep writing checks, Mr. Bezos.

    Of course, Jeff Bezos is a brilliant businessman, and he won’t keep throwing money down a hole. And we now have a significant cultural expectation that news is free.

    So you tell me: Will the Post use new-found income to pay for real journalism while not charging everyone for content? Or do we just not care enough about real journalism to make it a business priority?


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  • #179705

    Scott Horvath

    Certainly there’s going to be some innovation with the Washington Post as a news distribution organization. I think right off the bat there won’t be too much change…at least for 6-8 months. But then I can see that there’s going to be a major shift in the way that distribution is handled, sold, etc. The Washington Post has a major legacy as a news distribution organization and one of the few major players still around and I’m sure that Bezos doesn’t want to, personally, see it die out and also knows there’s some major opportunities to change it’s business model and improve the business. He sees an opportunity to fix something and knows that this is a major investment and will continue to be for awhile. It doesn’t hurt that Amazon is a publishing platform itself and there’s certainly some advantages to be taken with buying the WashPost.

    Like you said there’s definitely some political content and there’s a need for objectivity in writing. I’m not how that will change with Bezos at the helm. But if the content becomes more positive and accepting of Bezos-related investments and ventures then it’s going to taint the reputation with readers. I hope that doesn’t happen.

    Only time will tell and I’m sure everyone will be watching and waiting to see what’s next…maybe he can help us to culturally stop calling it a “paper.”

  • #179703

    Joe Flood

    If anyone can make the news work, it’s Jeff Bezos. The Washington Post may be a community institution but it survived only due to its Kaplan for-profit education arm. Once the government cracked down on diploma mills, the Post faced a perilous future – so they sold to Bezos.

    Journalism is one of those careers like photography – I don’t know how you make a living these days. But I think there is a solution, leveraging tools like social, the web, Kindle and a distributed workforce. If I knew how to fit all this together, I’d be a mogul.

    As a long-time Washingtonian, Post fan, Kindle author and freelance writer, I have five suggestions for what Bezos should do now.

  • #179701

    Joe Flood

    I think you’re right about distribution. The cheapest Kindle now is $69. There’s been speculation that they’ll eventually be free, since Amazon makes money selling books and magazines through them. I’d give Kindles to all subscribers and end the print edition – it would be good for the environment too.

  • #179699

    Peg Hosky

    Thoughtful remarks all around! To follow what has happened to the revenue and circulation among newsprint publications, check out the blog, Newsosaur, for a studied, researched perspective. That being said, having worked for International Data Group, the largest publisher of information technology print media, and trained at the IDG Publishing Institute, I love reading news. However, I admit that I have not flipped a page of The Washington Post hard copy in several years. That means the advertising dollars are lost on me and the rest of the universe that has embraced the world of online media.

    To get a return on his investment, Bezos will need to figure out a viable future for the Post that doesn’t include the readers paying for content.

  • #179697

    When you consider that 6 corporations own 90% of the media in the United States it becomes clear that we have entered an entirely new world of communication. For government communicators, here are three consequences of this consolidation:

    • There are no isolated stories about the agency but rather there is an overarching narrative and every story feeds into it. So within the agency it is not OK to have one group working on Initiative A and another group on Initiative B and they are connected in the public’s mind yet internally the people are not talking to one another. Public Affairs has to be that connecting linchpin working between Groups A and B to insist that the narrative be made whole.
    • Similarly there are no isolated news outlets or platforms on which news is delivered but rather one always connects to the other. So it is impossible to say, we’ll do a press release but avoid social media; or we don’t want to get involved in mobile now; because the reality is, your content is going everywhere. The people responsible for sending out content to the public must be working across platforms to comprehensively assess and then report back on the impact of particular stories and on the general tone of coverage across traditional and new media.
    • Finally in the Bezos model as in the Huffington post model, the user is king and so there has to be much more respect for and engagement with the unfiltered and uncensored comments from the public. It’s no longer enough to say “whoa, that’s astroturfing and I’m not going to respond” – you have to get in there, roll your sleeves up and talk to people. (Of course you have to identify yourself as an Agency representative.)

    This relates to my post yesterday on branding the platform, which talks about Amazon at some length.

    On a related note I think it is important to point out as I try to do periodically that no matter what communication outlet we use, it is illegal to use appropriated funds for propaganda.

    The law does not specifically say what that word means but over the years, it has been interpreted pretty clearly and the Legal Information Institute at Cornell offers a brief guide. Essentially Agencies:

    • Can: “inform the public about its activities and programs, explain its policies and priorities, and defend its policies, priorities, and point of view”
    • Can’t: 1) engage in “self-aggrandizement” 1) engage in “self-aggrandizement” (also known as “puffery” or promotional talk that “no ‘reasonable person’ would take literally” and that can’t be verified for accuracy – e.g. a sales pitch 2) promote a political party or candidate – e.g. communicate for “purely partisan purposes,” and 3) issue “covert propaganda” – meaning Agency materials issued to a non-government outlet without disclosing who made them.
    On the concept of journalistic objectivity, or any objectivity, I am of the school of thought that says it is impossible, although striving for accuracy is not. As Glenn Greenwald (the reporter who broke Edward Snowden’s story) states:”The reality is that, as desperately as they try, virtually no journalists are driven by this type of objectivity. They are, instead, awash in countless highly ideological assumptions that are anything but objective.”

    To counter the problem of objectivity, it is helpful to offer raw data along with context and then invite third parties to analyze it, break it down and communicate about it their own way. Check out this template for a Social Media Press Release.

    (Note – all opinions my own as always.)
  • #179695

    Dave Hebert

    “Paper” — great point. What will we call these? News outlet/platform? In any case, Gene Weingarten agrees with you.

  • #179693

    Dave Hebert

    I did not know about the Kaplan connection — thanks, Joe, and as I said on Twitter, really great post on your own blog.

  • #179691

    Dave Hebert

    Gwynne, I wholeheartedly agree that 1.) there are a number of better questions to be asked here. 2.) blame for journalism’s problems exists in the mirror, not to mention across our culture, and 3.) we have got to let our definition of journalism evolve.

    However, I don’t think the principle of free press (whether gathered under a corporate roof or simply under one passionate citizen’s roof) that seeks objective accountability for power is something we need to leave behind. And I’m pretty skeptical that such a principle will simply arise out of that environment you describe without deliberate nurturing and standards, particularly without being executed in the name of some agenda.

    That’s where my question aims: Can more resources (whether it’s at the Post or elsewhere) invigorate that, or do we need to let that go?

    That doesn’t answer your very good questions about this particular transaction, of course, and I have no idea whether Bezos cares about journalism at all. As usual, I’m just shooting from the hip. But like you, I will be pretty curious to see what happens.

  • #179689

    Dave Hebert

    You cover a lot of relevant ground as usual, Danielle — I am struck by the media-as-brand concept you employed in another forum, and I think this issue of info control (or the complete lack thereof) needs to be not only accepted but embraced.

    There’s a lot of freedom in a lack of control, and in a media and messaging context, the only thing you can control is what comes out of your own mouth (and even that is hard, both personally and institutionally).

    And I agree about objectivity and probably should have used a different word — humans in general aren’t good at it, period. Perhaps we can stretch objectivity to be a description of the sum total of attempts at accuracy. Boy, that’s not equivocating at all, huh?

  • #179687

    Dave Hebert

    Didn’t know about Newsosaur — thanks!

  • #179685

    David B. Grinberg

    Great questions, Dave.

    First, the WSJ provides an excellent analysis of the current state of print media in America. Check out the 2-minute video here. A Few points to consider:

    1) The purchase of the Post should be less surprising, especially to industry followers, as the digital convergence of print media continues to spread like wildfire. In short, this is nothing new, just the latest wake up call for the public.

    2) Expect to see the continued rise of digital paywalls to access content at the Post. With the decline of independent journalism, as well as print ad revenue, newspapers like the Post have little choice but to join the likes of the NYT, WSJ and others in charging subscribers for access. This trend will also continue because the number of independent media outlets — those not corporate owned — are in free fall. Thus independent news outlets will be able to charge consumers for premier journalism content unavailable elsewhere. This becomes a basic economic question of supply vs. demand.

    3) An ethical dilemma and conflict of interest may arise if the “new” Bezos-owned and operated Wash Post disproportionately uses ads by, and links to, Amazon to drive reader/consumer engagement, while locking out the competition.

    4) Another conflict of interest may arise if Bezos tries to combine the Wash Post and Amazon into one mega site with traffic being directed at the readers/consumers of both traditional entities to boost Amazon’s sales and revenue base — to the detriment of objective journalism.

    5) Since Bezos has more money than he could probably ever spend, the question arises as to what really motivated him to purchase the Post in the first place? Perhaps he now wants a leading national editorial platform to voice his personal opinions via the Post editorial board. He already has money and fame, but he may also desire to exercise greater influence on public policy on a host of issues.

    6) The main question posed — “Will more money = better journalism?” — is contingent upon whether Bezos wants to maintain the independence of the Post’s reporting and ad sales, while weighing in on issues of the day or promoting his own agenda via the editorial side. If the traditional firewall separating news and editorial is eviscerated this will not bode well for fair and objective journalism.

    7) Unfortunately, recent history has shown that corporate-owned media tend to exercise undue influence on the news-editorial process — which is obviously anathema to fair and objective journalism.

    In essence, until Bezos’ true intentions are revealed via a new business model, it’s anyone’s guess about what the future holds for the Post.

    Thanks for considering these points.

  • #179683

    Dave Hebert

    Update: Bezos gave a wee bit more insight on how he’s looking at the Post. Couple nuggets:

    -He’s preaching patience: “‘Quickly’ in my mind would be years.”

    -He seems to have IDd what he sees as the Post’s value but also sees the challenge of selling it: “The Post is famous for its investigative journalism,” he said. “It pours energy and investment and sweat and dollars into uncovering important stories.” But, “From a reader point of view, the reader has to ask, ‘Why should I pay you for all that journalistic effort when I can get it for free’ from another site?”

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