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.
Bezos' "reader first" comments suggest he doesn't think investigative journalism can pay http://t.co/2e9JQWqlNh
— Quentin Hardy (@qhardy) September 3, 2013
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?”
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