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Summary:

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says he sees a future in which newspapers are like horses — a luxury item for a small group of people, not a mainstream transportation method — but his analogy is both right and wrong.

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Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos hasn’t talked a lot about what he thinks of the newspaper business since he agreed to buy the struggling Washington Post for $250 million earlier this year, but he said something interesting during an otherwise unremarkable interview with the Today show about Amazon’s new Kindles: Bezos said he sees a time coming when newspapers are like horses — in other words, a luxury item for a small proportion of the population, rather than a mainstream transportation method. As he put it:

“I think printed newspapers on actual paper may be a luxury item. It’s sort of like, you know, people still have horses, but it’s not their primary way of commuting to the office.”

While newspaper executives may not like the implications of this particular analogy — especially since horses that are sick or no longer useful are often dispatched by ranchers with a bullet through the head — it has some truth to it. Not that long ago, when newspapers were just getting their start as a method of mainstream news delivery, riding on horseback was a fairly common means of transportation. Then Henry Ford and his competitors showed people the automobile, and soon horses were seen as slow, cumbersome and backward.

A sentimental bond to an earlier time

Even as that transition was under way, however, there were large groups of people who felt that horse-drawn carriages and horses themselves had many advantages over the automobile: some of it was based on a sentimental attachment to an earlier way of life, but some was about the dangers of these newfangled vehicles, as well as their impersonal nature, the smell, the effect on society as a whole as it was becoming more industrialized, and so on.

Many similar criticisms have been made about the shift from newspapers to digital platforms and crowdsourced journalism tools such as Twitter or Reddit: yes, they are faster, but they are also prone to mistakes, and in some cases those mistakes can spread misinformation much farther than it would otherwise have gone. There are complaints about a lack of professionalism that newspapers used to bring, and criticisms that boil down to an emotional attachment to a slower time, when things were (seemingly at least) easier to understand.

What’s particularly interesting about the horse analogy is that — as former Wall Street Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz pointed out in a comment on Twitter — Bezos used the exact same comparison in 2008 when he talked about printed books, the industry that Amazon has subsequently either forced to adapt or helped to kill, depending on your point of view. He said: “We’re not going to keep riding our horse to work just because we love our horse.”

The flaw in the horse analogy

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The more I thought about the analogy of newspapers and horses, however, the more I thought that the transition in media from print to digital — and more specifically, the move from centralized platforms to dis-aggregated and personal methods of both consuming and producing news and information — is actually more like the move from cars back to horses than it is the reverse.

It’s true that digital is faster, and possibly more dangerous, in the same way that cars were to horses. But if you accept the argument (made by Economist writer Tom Standage, among others) that media in many ways is becoming more personal and social — in much the same way it was in the 1800s, before newspapers were born, when coffee shops and gossip were the primary method of news delivery — then what we have is a lot more like horses than it is like cars.

Whether that’s ultimately good or bad is difficult to say, but the implications of it are fairly profound, and they affect a lot more than just newspapers. It will be interesting to see how Bezos adapts his new acquisition to this new reality.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Dawid Lech

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  1. You ivory-tower types need to stop focusing on the top 10 newspaper markets and concluding that they represent the newspaper business as a whole.

  2. Martin Langeveld Thursday, September 26, 2013

    You’re right that before mass-market newspapers, the news ecosystem was more personal, more social, more local (and slower). So was transportation and a lot of other things. But I think the right analogies to make are with technological trends over the last 100 years, all of which have moved from centralized mass market approaches toward distributed, personal ones. In transportation, we’ve gone from scheduled, point to point trains and buses to personal transportation. (The peak year for passenger train travel was sometime in the 1920s.) In computing, we’ve gone from mainframes to personal computers to mobile devices. Music distribution: from mass-produced records and tapes to personally-tailored music services. Movies: from centralized movie theatres to personalized digital delivery. Newspapers: from central production and delivery to personalized digital news services. Food: centralized mass processed food production to renewed interest in local food (still in progress). Beer: from a few national brewers to many microbrewers (also still in progress). These trends are not resistible or reversible, and any business in these sectors that has not recognized them has been swept away by the trends. Vestiges of the old centralized models survive in each of these sectors but they are generally more expensive than the personalized distribution that succeeded them, which is Bezos’s point. (Even Bezos’ Amazon, which at first glance seems like a counterexample with lots of centralization, is in fact facilitating and enabling a huge amount of personalization in many product categories.)

    1. Great points, Martin — thanks for the comment.

  3. Mr. Bezos, of course, was referring to the printed newspaper, not newspaper content generally. My interpretation was that some most Washington Post readers will consume the paper’s content digitally, but many will continue to also receive the printed product (because they like and can afford to).

    I agree that the printed product will become increasingly more expensive (many newspapers are already placing a premium on 7-day home delivery) and thus a luxury to some. As IDG CEO Bob Carrigan told a newspaper conference in 2012: “Manage print for profit, digital for growth.” So newspapers will continue to increase the price of print with the expectation of serving a smaller universe.

    Clearly, newspapers are distributing content across multiple channels. The real question is whether the model of professionally developed, vetted and curated content will retain its value in a world of unwashed facts and opinion. I take issue with Mathew’s perspective: “There are complaints about a lack of professionalism that newspapers used to bring.”. Where is the evidence that newspapers are no longer professional? There may be fewer reporters, but that doesn’t detract from the professionalism that newspapers (and other media outlets) provide.

    I certainly hope that professionally produced and packaged content does not become a luxury item.

  4. Michael W. Perry Friday, September 27, 2013

    The issue’s not really print versus digital. It’s that the old print model had a built in funding model. In their prime, big city dailies and small town weeklies were almost the only way to reach an entire community with advertising from full-page department store ads to the tiny-type classifieds. People had to advertise in them and, by advertising, they paid for their local news coverage.

    Digital news gathering has yet to discover a similar funding model. Classifieds have moved to Craigslist. Full-page flyers are now delivered directly by the USPS and some of the stores where I shop send out weekly email flyers that cost them almost nothing. Ads on newspaper web pages are no different from the ads on a million other websites. News gathering doesn’t have an effective funding source.

    Jeff Bezos’s horse analogy is right about one thing. Certain news sources are becoming something more affluent people will pay for. But it’s not luxury and nostalgia like owning a horse. It’s because that source adds enough value to the news to be worth its cost. For many in business, what the Wall Street Journal does is worth paying for. It’s not a luxury. It’s a necessity. For many who want to have the ‘proper’ opinion on a host of topics, the NY Times is worth the cost. It tells them what new novel they’re supposed to be reading and which (Republican) politician they should be sneering at.

    Whether the staff like it or not, he only financially viable role for the Washington Post may be as an inside-the-beltway gossip column filled with tittering news about the behavior of senators and agency heads.

  5. carmen webster buxton Friday, September 27, 2013

    If wishes were horses, then beggars would read newspapers.

  6. Jeff Domansky PR Sunday, September 29, 2013

    Mathew, really enjoyed your post and the counterpoint to Bezos. Yes, media is more personal and social. The problem is it’s now filling up with spam, irrelevant content, uninformed comment and much worse. In the past, the media performed a valuable function of delivering news and expert commentary. Editors served as a filter and quality control.

    In the new digital world, we have what Clay Shirkey calls a massive “filter failure.” Add to that the inevitable march to commercialization of every aspect of digital media and you’ve got a recipe for future disruption and failure. We can see the first signs of it with younger people leaving Facebook in search of other more relevant channels. Where Facebook used to be a fun place to socialize it now lacks a reason for being other than to hammer away at users with commercials in order to satisfy shareholders with the next quarterly earnings growth.

    The final nail in the coffin is if it doesn’t work on mobile it’s not gonna work. Period.

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