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Five things Jeff Bezos should do to reinvent the sinking ship that is the Washington Post

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There’s been a metric ton or so of digital ink spilled over Amazon (s amzn) CEO Jeff Bezos and his acquisition of the venerable Washington Post since the deal was announced on Monday (we’ve collected some of the best responses and analysis for you), with dozens of different interpretations of his potential motivations for the $250-million purchase. As for what Bezos plans to do with the newspaper, that remains a closely guarded secret — but what follows are five things I think the Amazon founder should do to if he wants to re-energize the Post and help blaze a trail towards the newspaper of the future.

Shut down the printing presses: This may seem like a fairly radical step, but if anyone is going to do it, Bezos is the one. And why not? The main reason why more newspapers haven’t taken this step is that they still derive a large amount of revenue from their print advertising (although it is shrinking rapidly). But Bezos doesn’t need to worry about that, just as the Christian Science Monitor — which shut down its daily print edition way back in 2008 — didn’t have to worry about it, because profitability wasn’t the most important thing.

Newspaper boat floating

Don’t lots of people still subscribe to the Post in print? Sure they do — although that number has dropped by about 50 percent over the past decade to less than 500,000. And the print audience is declining almost as rapidly as the print-based advertising market is, as many of those readers either unsubscribe or die. Shutting down the print version would send a strong message that the Post was committed to a digital future. As venture investor Marc Andreessen said in 2010: “Newspapers need to burn the boats.”

Integrate the Post into the Kindle ecosystem: With the Kindle, Bezos has a dedicated mobile reading device that is used by millions, and it is connected to his own personal wireless network. What better way to broaden the Post‘s reach? Why not bundle it with every Kindle and then include free or discounted ebooks and Singles written by Post authors — both new ones and Singles made up of feature stories from the newspaper’s vast archive.

As David Auerbach has pointed out at Slate, Amazon could easily include the Post front page as an alternate home page for Kindle users, or add it to the special promotions that some versions of the Kindle come with. And Amazon also knows a lot about Kindle users and their preferences based on their usage of the device, which would be invaluable information for the Post.

Blow up the advertising model: The biggest financial problem for newspapers isn’t that circulation or subscriptions are declining — it’s that digital advertising doesn’t even come close to making up for the ongoing decline of print advertising, leaving most papers in a giant hole (even the New York Times is in a hole, although it is smaller thanks to its paywall). In part, advertisers have deserted newspapers because they prefer targeted ads they can get through online sites or through programmatic buying like Google AdSense, but it’s also because newspapers haven’t learned how to do it.

Advertising, b&W ad

Since Bezos doesn’t have to worry about quarterly results or profits, he can afford to make bold moves with advertising as well as the content side — so he could reject the traditional banner and skyscraper ads, or those horrible skin-tightening and tooth-whitening network ads, and focus on giving advertisers something of value they are willing to pay for. Maybe it’s magazine-style ads, maybe it’s sponsored content, maybe it’s all of that plus the opportunity to advertise to every Kindle reader. And all of it driven by the reams of data that Amazon has on its users and their preferences.

Personalize everything, everywhere: Everyone likes to talk about personalized recommendations, but Amazon more or less invented the concept when it comes to e-commerce — which is why so many of the jokes about the Washington Post acquisition were of the “Shoppers who bought the Post also liked…” variety. What if Bezos applied that same data-driven knowledge to news and content recommendation through the Post? It might not drive huge numbers of new readers, but it would fill a large gap for smart, algorithm-driven curation that currently isn’t being served very well.

Newspapers have been largely unable to take advantage of true personalization — either for content or for advertising — because they don’t really know much about their readers on an individual basis, and so their recommendations are largely useless. That’s a problem Amazon was built to solve. And knowing more about Post readers and their likes and dislikes would help Bezos tweak the online retailer’s algorithms as well, so that he could appeal to customers who share that kind of demographic or interest profile.

Computer and magazine

Rebuild the Post website from the inside out: This may seem fairly boring, and in many ways it is, but one major problem many newspapers — including the Washington Post — have is that their content-management systems are relics of an earlier time, when print was the dominant format and the web was an afterthought. This can and does hold newspapers back from doing what is necessary to focus on digital (including easily linking to things online in the course of writing about a topic), and building something fast and digital-native would help.

If there’s one thing Amazon understands, it’s how to build a distributed platform that takes advantage of the cloud and can be scaled quickly — the development of Amazon Web Services and the Elastic Compute Cloud and Amazon’s other cloud features are arguably as groundbreaking and important as the company’s near-total disruption of the traditional retailing model for books and other content. A more nimble CMS would allow the Post to compete with online players like Politico and the Huffington Post more easily.

Whether Bezos decides to make any of these changes to the Post remains to be seen — but I for one hope that he tries to implement at least one or two of them, because it would make for a fascinating experiment in building a truly next-generation digital newspaper.

Images courtesy of Flickr users Zarko Drincic and George Kelly and Shutterstock / Everett Collection

19 Responses to “Five things Jeff Bezos should do to reinvent the sinking ship that is the Washington Post”

  1. Jack Rivkin

    Nice summary. Here’s another way to look at it: and a blog on same:
    The Post produces great content, not the news. It also has a history of Washington in its archives. I think JB will bring his relentless cost control to the back office and enhance the content. The Journalism employees should not be sad. They should have been sad if one of the other 12 bidders other than Jeff Bezos had bought them.

  2. Stewart Starer

    Notice the somewhat disorganized manner of internet presentations in various areas such as sports. What sense would it make to continue the Post as a subscription. News would be organized per the usual newspaper but very up to date. Meanwhile you can continue to experiment with selling the paper edition at reduced prices. This to me is the amalgamation of the internet and the Post to subscribers who pay a fair price for news presented in a fast and far more organized fashion. Stewart

  3. You are very wrong, Sir. Mr. Bezos reportedly bought WP with his own money. There are no ties with Amazon thus far so involving AMZN resources in this venture is kind of a stretch…

  4. Rich Squenta

    Re the Kindle: Bezos as an individual bought the Post, not Bezos in his capacity as the CEO of Amazon. Amazon Bezos cannot make decisions to favor him individually without raising the ire of shareholders, the SEC, and the IRS. If a newspaper is to be favored, Bezos would have to solicit and dispassionately consider offers from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

    Re personalization: Nobody wants the Post to become like Topix or Newsvine. The Post can only produce so much quality content. If they tried to hire local microbloggers, the quality would plummet. If they became an aggregator, they would be no different than a thousand other websites. The only personalization needed is a better search feature for the archives. The Post does not produce and cannot produce so much content that the headlines can’t be scanned in a minute a day and self-personalized by any reader.

  5. Domino Theory

    Traditional media sells the value of its readership over the value of its content. That model is broken. Stop thinkning “News” and start thinking, “Information.”

    Bezos needs to flip revenue model. News gathering organizations like the Post create content that has incredible intelligence value to businesses, government entities, and individuals. Stop selling eyeballs to advertisers and start selling targeted, actionable information. This is far more valuable and makes the news gathering entity much more accountable to boot!

  6. Sexy & Mop

    Fire every one of the smug blogger columnists who “work” for the post. From Richard Cohen to George Will — they’re like moldy bread. Hire all 20 somethings to take over.

  7. Brian C

    If you think there was an uproar in New Orleans, wait till you “burn the boats” with The Washington Post. Even if looking back years later it will seem like the right thing to do, it rips apart the relationship with the community. There’s no love for the first to try it.

  8. johnwarne13

    Hey Mathew, nice post that you have shared here.

    We just need to wait and watch that what jeff bezos can do for washington post in future,

    We can not assume anything about this.

  9. Stanley Krauter

    Mr Bezo should also force his reporters to start communicating like teachers instead of entertainers.
    Because reporters are always writing about todays most important facts, they are distracting voters from remembering yesterday’s most imp0ortant facts. This is why the pre-crisis journalism on the housing bubble and subprime mortgage fraud was ignored by politicians and voters. It is also the reason why the incomplete reforms of our too big to prosecute banking system are going to be repealed by the same old group of rich and powerful special interest groups.-
    This problem could be overcome if reporters were willing publish an annual one week review of the year’s most important facts like a teacher would for a summertime class of students who failed their regular classes. But this will never happen unless an outsider like Mr Bezo forces reporters to communicate more effectively because reporters think that their job is too important to waste any time on educating voters instead of entertaining them.

    • flat stanley

      Stanley Krauter do you ever give up with this teacher/news stuff. A teacher would be fired if his lectures were as predictable as the comments you leave all over the internet.

      • Stanley Krauter

        No. I have been trying for over twenty years to get someone in the news media to realize that reporters are turning facts into white noise. I have come to believe that reporters are too narcistic to change their “professional standards.”

  10. Sexy & Mop

    Five things Jeff Bezos should do to reinvent the sinking ship that is the Washington Post

    1. Print real news
    2. Print real news
    3. Print real news
    4. Print real news
    5. Print real news

    • What he really should do is don’t print news, because by the time the newspaper is on my front step I already read the news – as it happened – online yesterday.

      What I want from a newspaper is backgrounds, analysis, in-depth pieces on why things are happening the way they are. That’s what Bezos should focus on and I would add it as number 6 to the list above.

  11. If journalism is to be driven by content-recommendation, I think that stuff like Glenn Greenwald’s will be less likely to flourish. This is the critique that Evgeny Morozov makes, habitually, about algorithms. If we rely less on editorial judgment and more on prior interest/audience gratification, we’ll end up with more entertainment-based pieces. Or, journalists will be more inclined to cover topics in a certain way, one that caters to a public that demands gratification rather than deliberation. This is best exemplified on television, where cable executives dodge criticism by saying: “we are merely giving the people what they want.”