One can only hope that Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com Inc. and the new owner of the Washington Post, doesn’t mean it when he says he won’t be involved in the Post’s day-to-day operations. This is precisely where fresh thinking is needed in the newspaper business.
Nobody needed to be told that the industry is in trouble and maybe terminal decline. In discussing the sale, Washington Post Co. Chief Executive Officer Donald E. Graham frankly admitted defeat, noting that he “couldn’t see how to grow the paper and began to wonder if there was a better owner.”
It would be hard to imagine a more intriguing one. Bezos is among the most creative and disruptive innovators American capitalism has ever seen. Many Internet billionaires have, you could say, had success thrust upon them, playing at projects they thought were cool and discovering that the world agreed. Bezos is different. He brought deliberate vision and remorseless commercial logic to the overthrow of existing ways of doing business. He’s no accidental revolutionary.
This is what makes his acquisition of the Post so exciting -- that, and the strategic, operational and financial room for maneuver that such a deep-pocketed owner can provide.
Various commentators (including Henry Blodget at Business Insider, an Internet news-and-comment site in which Bezos has invested) point to possible synergies between news and the Amazon model. Like newspapers, Amazon is in the content and distribution business, and via its Prime service it has found a new way to collect subscriptions from users. Amazon understands the economics of physical and virtual delivery -- the puzzle that’s defeating newspapers all over the world.
User-generated content is another intersection. A hallmark of Amazon’s success as a retailer has been its focus on customer service and use of customer reviews, something buyers now take for granted across all e-commerce. Empowering consumers and recasting them as producers has been an Amazon specialty. Bezos found a way to engage with and make money from shoppers in a new kind of community -- and it’s the heart of his business, not an afterthought. Notice that the online news business is increasingly preoccupied with social media, user-generated content by another name. Bezos might try to marry these ideas in new ways.
So many other complementarities suggest themselves that a deal that surprised almost everybody is already looking like something that had to happen. A newspaper in every box? An accelerated shift to all-digital? Maybe both. The challenge that’s eluded the industry so far is to manage the upheaval and thrive commercially at the same time. Bezos may find the answer, and we wish him well.
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