The media and publishing world shook this week when it was announced that Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos had agreed to purchase The Washington Post for $250 million. Post announcement (no pun intended) I saw a number of articles that effectively asked the question, “What would Jeff Bezos want with The Washington Post?” My suspicion is that for a guy like Bezos (supposedly worth about $24 billion) purchasing a newspaper is akin to an upper middle class guy who decides to buy a classic car in need of work that he can tinker with on the weekends. After all, the cost of the purchase is not going to dent his wealth and you know he’s not going to walk away from the Amazon juggernaut to try to restore The Post to it’s former glory. He’ll fiddle with it though, but what he chooses to do is not my worry.
Left out of much of the commentary on this purchase is the fact that Bezos is already a much more powerful publisher than the publishers of The Post in both audience reach and revenue. Sure, Amazon sells books but they also publish a ton of e-books and print books via their wholly owned subsidiary CreateSpace. That’s not all though. Amazon Studios is producing original streaming video shows just like Netflix. So there you have print publishing, e-books and television. Adding The Post to Bezos’s empire is like adding a few extra sprinkles onto a banana split. Oh and I almost forgot that Amazon owns Audible, the leading seller of audio books. Knowing all this I think the question isn’t: Why would Bezos by The Post? The question is: What are the conditions that lead to the value of The Post falling to a level that would make the purchase attractive for Bezos? The answer is You (with just a little help from the internet gods.)
Simply put, new media is eroding the walls of the iron castle that old media enjoyed as protection for many years. My friend Shel Holtz of the For Immediate Release podcast likes to say, “New media don’t kill old media.” Perhaps that’s true (after all The Post isn’t dead…yet) but at the very least new media corrodes old media, making it less and less relevant every day. We’re talking about death by a thousand cuts rather than a lopping off of the head. If you publish a blog, post to Instagram, upload videos to YouTube or publish an e-book (among other digital endeavors to be viewed on the the web) you are one of those cuts.
I know that serious journalism types scoff at the theory that videos of a bare chested Justin Bieber could contribute to the degradation of the value of The Post (or The NY Times or The Boston Globe), but they can’t deny that there’s a direct correlation between the rise of independently published internet media and the fall in the value of America’s great print publications. Let’s not forget that with all of the innovations human beings in the best of shape only have two eyes to see with and all of us have roughly fifteen to twenty waking hours of the day. Hence, ten minutes spent checking your Instagram feed is ten minutes less that you’ll spend perusing The Post (online or print) for a hot story.
Adding indignity to indignation is the fact that real news is getting published online by a wide variety of upstarts (Politico, Huffington Post, Buzz Feed, etc.) that are not chained to the archaic economic model of the old print media. To publish a single story old media needs at the very least: a writer, an editor, a copy editor and someone to place and publish the story on the web. Meanwhile, smaller outfits will have one or two people filling the roles of four people. And the newer media people can do all that from home! I’ll disclaim here that I’m not an expert on the workflow of print publications (although I do have some insights because my brother has been a print copy editor for years) but it can’t be denied that there is a vast difference in the economics of print and internet-only media. I know that the people who sold The Post agree because they held onto their digital only properties.
I have focused a lot here on behaviors and economics, but the tools of online publishing have only gotten a passing mention. The tools have improved vastly even over the past five years. That includes the hardware (particularly smartphones), the apps and the web tools, like WordPress and other easy to use online publishing systems. Heck, the tools have gotten so good all the big print publications use them for one purpose or another. So there you have a level playing field. We use many of the same tools as the media and the ones that they have exclusive access to (print distribution being the major one) are becoming less and less of a good bet.
In conclusion, I’ll say that the recent sale of The Washington Post is less about Jeff Bezos buying it and more about the online publishing masses pushing it into his hands. I have no doubt that from here forward the headwinds for print news publications will get ever stiffer. Meanwhile the technological and economic barriers for independent digital publishing will continue to fall. It will be interesting to see if Bezos will figure out a way for publications like The Washington Post to bend, but not break, as the headwinds get even stronger.