Tuesday morning I was discussing the Bezos Washington Post on NPR's "To the Point" program with host Warren Olney; John F. Harris, Editor-in-Chief of Politico; and Nick Wingfield from the New York Times.
Here's my notes:
- There seems to be an impression that Jeff Bezos' technical acumen can save the Washington Post and the newspaper industry.
- No one knows Mr Bezos' plan of action, probably because he doesn't have a plan, yet.
- I made several points:
- I lamented the lack of critical analysis of the deal in the days following its announcement. I wondered what was a worse sign of the decline in American journalism: the lack of critical thinking, or a belief that tech billionaires will save the newspaper industry?
- One of the guests spoke about short term thinking at the Washington Post and that there was wasn't much long term strategy, or focus on innovation, or launching businesses such as Craigslist, or Angie's List.
My main points:
- I said that it wasn't a lack of long term thinking that led to the demise of the Washington Post. There was nothing that the owners of the newspaper could do because they were facing the disruptive technologies of the Internet, and the web is a publishing technology. Disruptive technologies disrupt.
- The Internet made possible Craigslist, which alone, takes out more than $16 billion a year from the classified ads industry. It used to be worth $20 billion a year in 2000 and it helped fund journalism.
- It only takes one Craigslist, just 35 people to run a classified ads service for more than 300 cities. Every newspaper could't create their own Craigslist, or Angie's List. You only need one of them.
- I managed to use, "Follow the money" — the classic Washington Post line from the movie "All the President's Men" — to help explain the economics of the newspaper business.
- The newspaper industry won't be saved by technology. The problem of creating a sustainable news industry is not because we don't have the right app, just yet, and that Jeff Bezos and his geek army of developers will whip something up. Yet there's broad belief that Mr. Bezos tech background is what will save the newspaper industry.
- The newspaper industry can be saved but it needs to be done at scale, the Washington Post cannot do it by itself.
- I believe very strongly that Jeff Bezos will try to save the newspaper industry — he didn't buy the Washington Post just for the influence it gives him and Amazon.
- Jeff Bezos has a sense of destiny and if he can develop a sustainable business model for high quality news organizations then he will have saved democracy. That would more than a feather in his cap, that's a whole headdress, (and very apt for the local football team).
It will be a much harder thing to do than simply giving billions of dollars away — as his Seattle neighbor Bill Gates is doing. Historians will measure the two billionaires against each other and one will eclipse the other. Which one will it be?