August 6, 2013

Jeff Bezos rescues the Post from the Great Decoupling

jeff-bezos
Jeff Bezos at the Web 2.0 conference in 2004 (Photo by JD Lasica).

Amazon chieftain may infuse journalism institution with much-needed tech innovation

JD LasicaHello, Jeff Bezos, and welcome to the Great Decoupling.

Over the past decade I’ve given a number of talks about the future of journalism and media, from a symposium at Princeton University to three panel discussions about the Future of Media in Silicon Valley. The common thread is what I’ve called the Great Decoupling –  the idea that the daily high-quality journalism cannot be sustained if it’s stripped from its moorings: the flotsam and fluff of newspapers (crossword puzzles, comics, horoscopes, advice columns) and magazines (Vanity Fair’s scented ads, which we put up with only because it supports great writing).

As a result of technology’s Great Decoupling, news has been decoupled from its containers, from its vessels. We want our news and media friction-free. We want it on our devices on our terms, in our preferred format, whether that’s via a website, tablet computer or, yes, a Kindle Fire. And that comes at a cost, as decades-old business models are upended.

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As readers peel away from newspapers and traditional publications in favor of blogs, niche publications, Internet TV and other alternative media, the cost of this disruption is evident for all to see: less in-depth reporting, less investigative journalism (the few remaining investigative journalists spend half their time in courtrooms or prison), less serious public discourse and fewer foreign news bureaus. In its place: a media distraction machine offering fact-free cubbyholes of comfort to a seriously underinformed nation careening from one national calamity after another.

It surprises me how many brilliant people, including Silicon Valley and Beltway heavyweights, don’t appreciate the role that family dynasties — the Sulzbergers, Grahams, Chandlers — and rich titans have played over the years in supporting journalism that serves the public good. More often than not, good journalism never has and never will be a profit center. (I worked for the Sacramento Bee when it was run as a civic-minded institution and when it was run as a public company, and the difference was striking.)

Which bring us back to Jeff Bezos. A new era in journalism kicked off yesterday with the announcement that Bezos — one of the smartest minds in the technology field — had agreed to buy the Washington Post for $250 million. This reminds me of another great tech thunderclap — when Google rescued YouTube, which was bleeding money profusely, from certain oblivion by buying it for $1.6 billion in 2006.

Here are some reactions to the unexpected news from around the Twittersphere:

twitter-reaction

Early reaction: Cautious optimism

And here are some early reactions from around the blogosphere and mediasphere:

Jeff Jarvis:

I hope and pray the real value he brings is his entrepreneurship, his innovation, his experience, and his fresh perspective, enabling him to reimagine news as an enterprise. …

Bezos’ key competence is in building relationships. This is wishful thinking on my part, as I have been arguing that we in journalism need to stop thinking of ourselves as manufacturers of a mass commodity called content and start understanding that we are in a service business whose real outcome is informed individuals and communities. Thus we must be in the relationship business.

I have been arguing with newspapers lately that they must gather small data about their individual users — where they live, where they work, what their key interests are — so they can serve people with greater relevance and value. I hope that skill — building profiles and using them to improve relevance — is the first that Bezos brings to the Post.

James Fallows in The Atlantic:

This is a moment that genuinely surprised me. I think I’ll remember where I was when I first heard the news — via Twitter! — and I am sure it will be one of those episode-that-encapsulates-an-era occurrences. Newsweek’s demise, a long time coming, was a minor temblor by comparison; this is a genuine earthquake. …

For years anyone thinking about the future of news has realized that, completely on its own, what we consider “serious” journalism has never been a viable business. Foreign reportage, serious investigative or government-accountability coverage — functions like these have always been, in economic terms, parasites that need to ride along on some profitable host body. In the old days, that was the fat, bundled newspaper, which provided a range of information to an audience with no technological alternative. We’re in the un-bundled era now, and serious journalism has been looking for new host bodies — much as higher education, museums, the fine arts, etc have also needed support beyond what the flat-out market would provide. …

So let us hope that this is what the sale signifies: the beginning of a phase in which this Gilded Age’s major beneficiaries re-invest in the infrastructure of our public intelligence. We hope it marks a beginning, because we know it marks an end.

Sarah Lacy in Pando Daily: “The smartest CEO in tech right now might actually have a plan” and “There are few people who think longer-term than Bezos.”

In the Guardian, Emily Bell called it “a marriage of old media and new money” and “a fascinating transition as east coast influence passes to Silicon Valley entrepreneurialism.” (Just what the doctor ordered for old-school but still-relevant journalism, in my view. See my 2010 presentation on Paths to the new journalism.)

Bell summed it up nicely:

“Silicon Valley is full of middle-aged men who, a dozen years ago, proved they could make the impossible come true. With his penchant for 10,000-year clocks and a reputation built on long-term strategy, Bezos might be embarking on the project that most tests his patience. But if he can really mold something transformational out of old media with his new money, he will have beaten bigger odds in a more spectacular style than any he has so far faced.”

I agree. Journalism needs not only a shot in the arm but a major kick in the butt. Silicon Valley (and we can include Bezos in that club, even though he’s based in Seattle) can teach journalism not just about efficiencies but about innovation, experimentation, daring to succeed by daring to fail. It will be a fascinating, fascinating process to watch in the years to come.

I’m not sanguine any time big money swoops in and takes over a major news outlet. But in this case, I am hopeful. Good luck, Mr. Bezos!

Postscript: I’ve tried several times now to create a Storify, including this one, without success. Every time it tells me “twitter identity already attached to jdlasica,” and so it can’t. Um. That’s me.

Related

Paths to the new journalism (Socialmedia.biz)
If newspapers disappear, will it matter? (Socialmedia.biz)
Newspapers and blue sky thinking (Socialmedia.biz)
Time for innovative news models (Socialmedia.biz)
Surveying the new media landscape (Socialmedia.biz)
Wrapping Up WeMedia (Socialmedia.biz)
A series on participatory journalism (Socialmedia.biz)

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JD Lasica, founder of Socialmedia.biz, is now co-founder of the cruise discovery engine Cruiseable. See his About page, contact JD or follow him on Twitter or Google Plus.

  • DavidSpark

    In terms of finding a new model of in depth journalism, check out Matter at http://readmatter.com. They’ve got a subscription model for a magazine that’s just one article a month and it only costs $1/month. I’ve become a subscriber and all the articles are excellent. Ev Williams thinks so. He purchased them for his new startup, Medium.

  • jdlasica

    DavidSpark left this comment, but Livefyre didn’t cooperate:

    In terms of finding a new model of in depth journalism, check out Matter at http://readmatter.com/. They’ve got a subscription model for a magazine that’s just one article a month and it only costs $1/month. I’ve become a subscriber and all the articles are excellent. Ev Williams thinks so. He purchased them for his new startup, Medium.

  • http://www.marketingtechblog.com Douglas Karr

    “good journalism never has and never will be a profit center” – total BS. I worked for newspapers for over a decade and our profits were 40% plus at times. It wasn’t because of coupons or ads… it was because of the quality of the local news. The problem with newspapers is that they’ve centralized their media resources and now belch cheap crappy AP filler instead of focusing on investing in great journalism and local resources. People PAY for great information every day – on and off the web. Knowledge is power and people are more than willing to pay for that.