Thursday, August 08, 2013


Forget the experts on the Washington Post sale and just imagine the possibilities

by Larry Geller

I am specifically not an expert on the history of journalism, nor a pundit of any stripe. In other words, I have no credentials that would qualify me to say anything about the sale of the Washington Post to Jeff Bezos.

This gives me a lot of freedom.

Having surfed the commentary posted by experts, non-experts, pundits, prognosticators, etc., it feels great not to be saddled with any responsibility for any thoughts I may have on this subject.

But I do have some thoughts. No one who writes about why Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post really knows anything about it. Theories seem rooted in classical economics (which is emphatically not a science). Instead, forget all that and let imagination rule, it’s just as accurate.

There could be surprises in store for us

For example, one thread of discussion is how Bezos might revive the Post or restore it somehow to its former glory. After all, he can afford to do that if he wishes. But maybe he doesn’t care at all about the print edition, which is what commentators mean. Maybe Bezos just wants the journalists, and the printing presses may be secondary.

Remember I used it to store and distribute minutes and other documents in the cloud for a non-profit I’m with. It seemed like the perfect solution. Just as I got busy uploading documents, was purchased by Facebook and then shut down. Why? It appears that the service itself wasn’t the objective. Facebook wanted the personnel.

Similarly, Posterous (which I used to store and distribute event information and audio recordings for another non-profit) was purchased by Twitter and then shut down. (I seem to have this touch… .) Again, Twitter wanted the people, not the service.

John Temple, former editor-in-chief of Civil Beat, so far a press-less Honolulu news business supported by another multi-billionaire, Pierre Omidyar, is one of the personnel now on Bezos’ payroll. He has some experience in finding, hiring and making use of experienced journalists in an at least somewhat non-traditional way. I’m sure Omidyar would not turn down a friendly phone call from Bezos on how it is going so far.

So perhaps Bezos has use for the reporters and staff that might be different from what they are doing now—publishing a print newspaper. Not that one can make a shift on a dime the way Facebook and Twitter did with their Internet service purchases. It could take a while before a new paradigm takes root—but remember, that’s what Bezos is good at—creating new paradigms.

Nor does a new paradigm mean that a printed Washington Post would immediately disappear. In order to have influence in the halls of Congress, for example, one probably needs to produce a paper edition for keyboard-challenged lawmakers to read, at least for a couple of years more.

The Washington Post could go Kindle. Why not? For the cost of an annual subscription, you could have a Kindle. [Just as the increasing cost of a print subscription to the Star-Bulletin could buy you a tablet and an on-line access subscription (seems to be only $15 a year, depending…)  (And there’s nothing to recycle or pile up in the living room waiting to be carried outside.)]

It’s very synergistic on the face of it. I have no idea how ad revenue figures into this, but maybe it doesn’t need to in the same way that a dying newspaper desperately seeks on-line revenue as its traditional business model deteriorates. It seems more like selling smart phones which then deliver content. In other words, a new line of business that fits with something (the Kindle) that Bezos is already pursuing.

A Kindle-based distribution system, if successful, could expand to provide other services—for example, alternative weekly news (a la the late lamented Honolulu Weekly). Printing and distribution costs have been insurmountable barriers to some of these papers. A new paradigm could literally take over.

Back down on Earth, let’s talk more about presses and distribution. The Honolulu Advertiser printed USA Today for a short while on its new high-tech German-made presses at Kapolei. Imagine that the Washington Post outsourced its printing. Could happen. It would be a boost for hurting local newspapers which could leverage not only their presses but their distribution system. I have no idea if this makes economic sense. I throw it out anyway, ‘cause I can.

In fact, incorporating local newspaper delivery capability with distribution might be a winner. Imagine finding groceries, your DVDs, those earphones you ordered, and a newspaper all on your doorstep before you leave for work. Maybe not tomorrow, but why not one day? Again, synergy.

Who would imagine that a cell phone would morph into a device with two cameras, a compass, GPS, accelerometer, thermometer and barometer built-in? Steve Jobs did, and I have one in my pocket. So forget the pundits and the experts. Your guess is as good as mine.

In any case, we’ll find out what’s on Jeff Bezos’ mind in due course.


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