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Summary:

In his first meeting with the paper he just acquired, Jeff Bezos said he prefers print and believes readers will pay for a daily bundle of news. But is he misunderstanding how the news business has changed?

Like a visiting dignitary from another world, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos descended on the Washington Post newsroom on Wednesday to meet with editors and reporters at the newspaper he recently acquired for $250 million, and by most accounts the reaction from the somewhat shell-shocked staff was surprisingly positive. That could have something to do with the fact that Bezos didn’t sound at all like the tech warlord out to gut the newsroom and get everyone to produce more slideshows — in fact, he said he prefers a printed newspaper to a digital one, and he also believes that readers will pay for a “daily bundle” of news on a tablet.

The Amazon founder made a number of other points that probably sat well with the Post‘s journalists, including the idea that the paper’s primary focus should be on readers and not advertisers, and that catering to the lowest common denominator isn’t the end goal “because then what you have is mediocrity” — a point he also made during an interview with Post reporter Paul Farhi, which appeared on Tuesday. Bezos also likely got a few cheers from the newsroom when he said that cutting staff indiscriminately would “lead to extinction, or at best, irrelevancy.” And he said he prefers to read his newspaper in print, not online.

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Bezos wants to reinvent the bundle of news

But for me at least — and for some other media watchers, including Jeff Jarvis — the most surprising admission from Bezos was that while he isn’t a big believer in charging people for access to specific stories, he does believe that readers will pay for what he called a “bundle” of news, or a “daily ritual habit.” According to the Washington Post‘s own story about his visit, Bezos said that people “will buy a package, they will not pay for a story.” And he added:

“There are so many degrees of freedom, knobs that can be turned and things we can experiment with that I’m confident there’s something we can find that readers love and will be engaged with — and that we can charge for.”

What’s surprising about his comments is how well they fit with the traditional views of the industry. Rather than suggesting that the business model of the newspaper business needs to be rethought — in an age where the scarcity value of news has all but disappeared, and the traditional benefits of a newspaper bundle have also declined — Bezos seemed to be saying that he believes readers will pay for a virtual bundle that mimics the newspaper on a tablet. But will they? Or rather, will enough of them do so?

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Is the Amazon founder missing the point?

In some ways, Bezos’s views probably shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise – after all, Amazon doesn’t give its content away for free, and Bezos has made it clear that he has little regard for businesses that are supported solely by advertising. But he seems to be missing two things: 1) The news business has never really made much money by charging readers directly, and 2) Selling books and selling a commoditized product like news are two very different things.

Will readers pay for a Kindle Single version of a long-form story or series? Probably. But will they pay for a bundle of undifferentiated news? Less likely. Tim Lee, who writes for the Post‘s technology blog, went so far as to say that Bezos’s vision of the problem — which the Amazon founder described as “how do we get back to that glorious bundle that the paper did so well?” — fundamentally misunderstands what the web has done to the news business.

“That daily ritual got blown up for good reason. Trying to recreate the ‘bundle’ experience in Web or tablet form means working against the grain of how readers, especially younger readers, consume the news today. In the long run, it’s a recipe for an aging readership and slow growth.”

In one of his other comments to the Washington Post newsroom, Bezos said that the worst thing for a newspaper to do is to live in the past or become attached to a nostalgic view of its business or its role in the world: “The death knell for any business is to glorify the past,” as he put it. But in some ways, the Amazon founder seems to be doing exactly that himself, with his love of print and his focus on getting readers to pay for a bundle of news. Hopefully he has something more up his sleeve than just that.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Arvind Grover and Getty Images

  1. I had to re-read that part of the interview a few times myself. I’m not sure there is enough brand loyalty among younger readers to pull off that kind of model across the entire industry.
    That being said, it’s easy to see a WaPo subscription being tied to Amazon Prime or Netflix or something of the sort. Perhaps that model may work out?

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  2. Discovery has shifted to social, not broadcast. Optimize for that and content consumption business will be okay. Fail to recognize unbundling, and risk innovating on top of a broken premise.

    Also, future of news + content monetization is commerce bundled inside it and between it. Commerce combined with interest graph data = an ad in itself.

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  3. This could potentially work. In Australia we have Crikey… which is a pretty successful (and profitable) outlet that revolves around a slightly porous paywall and daily “bundle”.

    It’s not a mainstream strategy, and it probably wouldn’t work for the majority, but that’s not to say there’s zero merit in the idea.

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  4. If I could choose by writer- (Ezra Klein & his team) or broad topics (Defense/NSA) and Politics- I’d buy a “Bundle”. Currently pay for NY Times (digital) and over 6 months, have tracked what topics and/or authors I read religiously. As a former DC resident & until thepaywall went up, a daily WaPo reader. I could live with a bundle- just would not pay for Geo Will, Jennifer Rubin, Krauthammer.

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  5. I subscribe to a daily newspaper here in South Africa. Yes, we are more traditional and print anything (books, magazines, journals, newspapers etc.) is still pretty strong. I prefer print news because I tend to read the whole paper. Online, I can only read a small portion of the newspaper before having to subscribe. What is it about unfolding that paper and browsing over it? I don’t know, maybe a sense of relaxation, not having to still be at the computer. Good luck to Jeff Bezos. I hope his venture works.

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  6. I disagree with your seeming conviction that Bezos is wrong. Not many people in the news business have really tried to fix it using the new contours I think he’s proposing. It seems like either you want to trash the traditional newspaper experience, even in ways it can be transferred online, or totally trash the online news model, whatever that is. The newspaper business could benefit from ownership/management that actually likes/love newspapers in their totality and is also open to bending the distribution model. A lot of the learned journalism critics find it so fashionable to beat up newspapers they have a difficult time dealing with a entrepreneur who might have a different idea.

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  7. This model could work, especially if the content can be targeted to specific niches. Businesses will pay for good intelligence. The question then becomes whether a news organization like the WaPo can compete with existing vertical media already serving those markets.

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  8. I think Bezos is spot on. As information overload is becoming more of a problem – yes with the younger audience, too – people are going to slowly want to find ways to manage their consumption. This can be done (and probably will be done) by (a) going to a publication (and writers/journalists) they trust and like; (b) using one or only two platforms that aggregate the content for them ie. package the content; and (c) choose when they want to consume this content, rather than being bombarded all day. And, even, (d) read content on some sort of platform where they’re not going to get dragged into the tiring comments section.

    The Kindle platform is able to offer all this if done right. The daily ritual is something people are slowly gravitating back towards, I believe. Slowly, and surely, it’s happening, and if things are packaged right people will start to buy into it, and I’m convinced that that will include the younger people too, who are getting tired of all the info and already just use their favourite platforms online. The app trend is partly helping this to happen already.

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