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Summary:

In one of the first tangible signs of new owner Jeff Bezos’ influence on its strategic thinking, the Washington Post has launched an ambitious national partnership aimed at expanding its digital subscriber base at relatively low cost

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photo: Getty Images

Much of the media world has been waiting with bated breath since Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post for $250 million last year, eager to see some sign of the Amazon founder and CEO’s hand at work. The first tangible evidence appeared on Tuesday, when the newspaper announced a major national subscription partnership that will offer free digital access to readers of other newspapers in major U.S. cities.

While this may not be as dramatic as shutting down the printing presses to go web-only, or offering everyone a free Kindle with their subscription, it’s still a fairly dramatic departure from the approach taken not just by the Washington Post but by most newspapers with traditional management.

The partnership — which will see the Post provide free digital access to subscribers of newspapers like The Dallas Morning News, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette — allows the Post to (theoretically at least) build a broader online readership outside of its core subscription area. As the Nieman Journalism Lab notes, the Post effectively ceded the national newspaper market to the New York Times by not launching a national edition, but the partnership could give it a way of achieving the same thing at much lower cost.

Comments made by Post president Steve Hills in an interview with the Financial Times suggest that the national subscription deal is a direct outgrowth of Bezos’ attempts to reimagine the traditional newspaper business — and in particular to think about growing the Post‘s digital footprint rather than just trying to hang on to its shrinking print-advertising revenue and print subscription base. Said Hills:

“He is asking a different question. He is asking: What can you do to have a great digital audience 10 years, 20 years from now? Under previous ownership, the very reasonable question we were asking was: How do we make money in the next two to three years?”

It’s not just that Bezos’ financial resources allow him to consider different strategies than the Post‘s previous owners might have — it’s unlikely that the idea of a national partnership offering free digital subscriptions to readers of other newspapers would ever have occurred to managers of a traditional newspaper, or made it past a board or shareholders meeting even if it did occur to them. Many would likely have seen it as giving away a valuable product for little immediate return.

In an interesting footnote, Hills also suggested that the free digital subscriptions could be expanded to include not just other newspapers or traditional media companies but “any company that sells premium subscriptions” for a product or service — including (not surprisingly) Amazon’s Prime delivery program, as well as the Spotify music streaming service and even pay-television providers.

Post and photo thumbnails courtesy of Getty Images

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  1. Dr. Tommi Chen Wednesday, March 19, 2014

    Interesting, Bezos seems to be using ‘free’, a classic internet business model to try to transform the newspaper. Free, of course has an underlying business rational and that is to build reach, trading free for marketing costs and distribution costs, etc. Free has a lot of value in the internet economy. He has a decent chance, he’s using internet methods in an increasingly internet age. If anyone is interested, I analysed ‘free’ here..
    http://internetbusinessmodelasia.blogspot.com/2013/06/the-value-of-free-seeming-paradox-but.html.

  2. Not sure if it was implied in the Spotify premium example, but the Times in the UK partnered with Spotify to give a free year of premium music access with a digital news subscription: http://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/feb/07/spotify-premium-membership-times-subscribers

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