There has been much hand wringing in media circles in the last day over the sale of The Washington Post to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos for $250 million. And that’s just the latest sale of the week. The New York Times Corporation sold off the Boston and Globe and Newsweek was sold as well. Statements with phrases like “the public trust” have abounded in the last week.
Before getting too far ahead of ourselves, let’s stipulate that newspapers were founded as profit making institutions and not non-profits. Just ask the Sulzberger (New York Times), Graham (Washington Post) and Bancroft (Wall Street Journal) families who gained great generational wealth at the helm of these institutions. The papers did great things, but they were and still are businesses. Back in the day, they were cash machines.
We now live in a much different, digital and I would argue more meritocratic era. The tools exist that enable entrepreneurs to come out of literally nowhere to start media and information companies with literally nothing behind them. It now takes a good idea, a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck. This is quite a bit different from just a few years ago when there were just a few well entrenched media companies. The hand wringing then was all about media consolidation.
Today, print media is not a growth industry. The legacy print companies that will continue to thrive or just to exist are those that have realized that they are in the information and content business and have adapted accordingly. They are “platform agnostic.” In other words they are creative about the ways in which they are delivering content. It doesn’t matter whether it’s print, mobile, video or online. I would contend that Michael Bloomberg has been brilliant in this regard, though time will tell how he manages a transition away from delivery over his eponymous terminals.
It is especially interesting that Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post with his own cash. It was not an Amazon investment. Granted, it’s only a small percentage of his personal wealth, estimated at $25 billion, but it is a distinctly high profile acquisition. There have been suggestions that Bezos bought the Post as a civic investment, to maintain it as a marquee name in American journalism. It certainly shows a commitment by a mogul of the digital age to quality journalism.
I would suspect that Bezos also intends to tinker with his investment. It is, after all, an investment and not a non-profit. The Post has lagged behind papers like the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times in its transition to an information company and away from a newspaper company. I think that we’ll see Bezos add new features and experiment with new products and delivery systems. That’s all a great thing.
I am all for preserving the quality and reputation of the Washington Post. I do not think, however, that it should be preserved as a relic or dinosaur of a past era. To be relevant, media properties must be vibrant and they must work. I would also add that they should make money. At a minimum, they should not lose money.
I have never been more optimistic about the news industry. I think that the opportunities out there are enormous and it’s a great time to be an entrepreneurial journalist. Entrepreneurial, however, is the key word. The writers and journalists who succeed in the digital age will be those who develop unique content and brands – those who display creativity in their knowledge of the news business and well as in their content. The playing field has been leveled. In the years to come a Washington Post credential on its own will no longer be enough to open doors.