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The two most interesting things Jeff Bezos told the Washington Post about his plans for the newspaper

Amazon (s amzn) CEO Jeff Bezos, who swooped in to rescue the legendary Washington Post by acquiring it for $250 million last month, hasn’t said much about what his plans are for the newspaper — although he has gotten plenty of advice from almost every media blogger or writer alive (including me) since the deal was announced. Given this vacuum of information, it’s not surprising that everyone is trying to read between the lines of an interview he did with the paper to try and figure out what the Amazon founder’s secret recipe might be for restoring the Post to greatness or profitability, or both.

While Bezos was pretty vague about the details of his plan — or even whether he has one at all — he did say a couple of interesting things about his view of the newspaper business, comments that I think raise a number of questions about where he wants to take the Post.

1) The reader comes first: Amazon is well known for putting the customer first, and Bezos suggested that he plans to bring that laser-like focus to the newspaper business, telling Post reporter Paul Farhi that “if you replace ‘customer’ with ‘reader,’ that approach, that point of view, can be successful at The Post too.” For Amazon, this kind of approach means things like free shipping and a no-hassle return policy, but what would that mean in the context of a newspaper?

Some critics took this comment to mean that Bezos will push the Post to write about whatever readers are most interested in, rather than the kind of long-term investigative journalism that the paper is known for — in other words, more stories about Miley Cyrus and fewer pieces about war in Syria.

That’s one interpretation, but there are others: for example, Bezos also said that he believes a focus on readers is important because he is “skeptical of any mission that has advertisers at its centerpiece.” That could mean the Amazon founder doesn’t want to just generate huge numbers of pageviews, which would be good news for Post fans who want more hard-hitting journalism. But his point about focusing on readers and less on advertisers becomes even more interesting when you put it together with another comment:

2) How do you make a living? Bezos noted that the Post “is famous for its investigative journalism,” which it pours huge amounts of energy and investment into — and then, as the Amazon founder noted:

“A bunch of Web sites summarize that [work] in about four minutes and readers can access that news for free. One question is, how do you make a living in that kind of environment? Even behind a paywall, Web sites can summarize your work and make it available for free. From a reader point of view, the reader has to ask, ‘Why should I pay you for all that journalistic effort when I can get it for free’ from another site?”

Newspaper paywall

There are two ways to look at this comment. One is to assume that Bezos isn’t a fan of paywalls, since they can easily be circumvented by aggregators. But what interested me most about the “reader first” mantra is that the new owners of the Orange County Register — businessman Aaron Kushner and his partner Eric Spitz — have said almost the exact same thing about their approach to reinventing the newspaper: namely, that they are putting the reader first, and they don’t really care what the impact of that is on advertisers. As Spitz put it to me:

“Our fundamental insight is that the business itself in the newspaper space has been operated for 75-plus years as an advertiser-first, subscriber-second business. We think that’s incorrect, and that they should be run as a subscriber-first, advertiser-second business — and when you make that shift, you see that a lot of other decisions fall from it.”

The interesting thing is that this approach led the OC Register management team in almost the exact opposite direction to what most people expected, and what many have come to expect from Bezos: instead of weakening or removing it, Kushner and Spitz have doubled down on the paywall — which is about as hard as any wall in the industry, with no free articles or social-media exceptions — and focused on building value for readers, including a massive investment in hiring new reporters and editors and adding new sections.

The bottom line is that Bezos’s commitment to putting readers first instead of advertisers could lead him in two very different directions: if he goes in one direction, he could remove the wall entirely and hope that giving readers what they want will generate enough value to pay the freight (which is the approach taken by one of his other investments, Henry Blodget’s site Business Insider). If he goes in the other, he could try to lock down the Post‘s content as much as possible and drive more revenue from that.

Which direction the Amazon founder will ultimately choose to go remains to be seen — but there’s no question that it is going to be fascinating to watch.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Getty Images / Spencer Platt and Shutterstock / Voronin76

5 Responses to “The two most interesting things Jeff Bezos told the Washington Post about his plans for the newspaper”

  1. In some ways, it sounds like Kushner and Spitz are taking a page from the Netflix playbook: concentrate on the value of the experience for certain kinds of content; don’t compete with the world to be the content clearinghouse. To win here you have to have quality content and a commitment to it, ease of access for customers on the devices they want to use, and a reasonable fee.

    There is ubiquity of content online, but when the business model is focused on ads, the content experience can degrade (content is just summary or worse—sensational headlines followed by vague suggestions and supposition, user experience suffers because of the prominence of ads, and increasingly content is segmented in order to drive impressions, not foster usability/readability [e.g. Business Insider]).

  2. I doubt Jeff Bezos will address the chief problem with most of the big media–the public perception that, with the exception of popular Fox News, it tilts heavily toward Democrats.

    Twenty years ago, the press could assume that stories that it ignored not only never became news, they never came to the knowledge of the average citizen. That’s no longer the case. The Internet and blogs provide the public with an information-rich awareness of scandals such as Fast and Furious and the IRS targeting of small government, pro-Israel and veterans groups.

    When papers such as the Washington Post show little interest in doing investigative journalism if the one investigated has a D after his name, their credibility suffers. And this isn’t just true for conservatives and Republicans readers. Those in the middle don’t like one-sided coverage either.

    I noticed something similar to this in college. Host a speaker on a controversial topic and it was hard to draw a crowd. Host a debate, with speakers on both sides, and more people came. Except for one or two token reporters and columnists, newspapers such as the Washington Post on give their readers only one side. Only belatedly, perhaps when forced by circumstances, does the truth began to slip out.

    I knew, for instance, from his resume, that Obama would prove to be a weak, ineffective and divisive president both foreign and domestic. I also knew his administration would be corrupt. No one who’s been in Chicago politics for two decades without even ruffling feathers is going to be a reformer. But only as the Middle East has begun to descend into chaos has the Washington Post begun to acquire an inkling of what I knew in 2008.

    And for most citizens, it makes no sense to read a newspaper that can only get stories from years ago right. We need today’s facts, today’s analysis, and today’s investigative journalism. That we don’t get from today’s partisan press.

    To give you a ‘for instance,’ in 1938, every faithful listener to the BBC knew that Winston Churchill was a crackpot who wanted to drag Britain into war. Even though he was the chief spokesman for one of only two views about how to avoid war (appeasement or stand firm), the BBC did its best not to give him air time By the end of 1939, however, many of those listeners must have been amazed by how much wisdom Churchill had acquired between Munich and the attack on Poland.

    But of course by then Europe and soon the world was plunging into war. Learning too late does no good.

    –Michael W. Perry, Chesterton on War and Peace: Battling the Ideas that Led to Nazism and World War II

  3. Frank A NYC

    It’s amazing how bloggers and media types seem to have the answers to all of the worlds problems, yet they never do anything other than bloviate. Perhaps all these smart folks should have ponied up the $250MM and bought the Post.

  4. What if Bezos creates Amazon Platinum, that includes Videos, Free 2-day shipping, free book rentals and full access to Washington Post for $100 per year? Maybe throw in a few other freebies in there that ties everything even closer to a Kindle Fire?

    • Scott Spicer

      Mikke, I think you are on to something. Amazon/Bezos are not happy just being an eTailor , they want to be many things to different people to hook them in to their services, such as cloud storage (S3) or media outlet (see Amazon Publishing, recent Amazon original TV show production investments and potentially magazine/newspaper publishing if Bezos somehow combines the two). Newspapers need alternative cash flows to fund the journalism, and I could see an Amazon Prime Plus or Amazon Platinum bundle as you suggest, working. Hell, I have Amazon Prime for $45 and I save enough on the shipping to make it worth it, so the possibility of being able to view free TV/movies is an after thought for me now (one I have not used much, but makes the proposition all the more enticing).