Jeff Bezos’ purchase of The Washington Post is provoking anxiety and uncertainty among journalists.
But for Silicon Valley techies, this move is cause for optimism: Someone may finally deliver technical and entrepreneurial prowess to an industry they largely view as slow-footed.
Forget grand futuristic ideas. For many in Silicon Valley, the news industry is so woefully behind in its grasp of the internet, that if Bezos can simply modernize its web efforts, it would represent a great leap forward for many news organizations.
“For too long, we’ve had the technologists sitting in one room, and the journalists sitting in another room,” said Phil Bronstein, executive chair of the board for the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley. “And each one sees the other as the bad guy. We need to get them in the same room, working together.”
Bezos, 49, is familiar with such notions. Plus, he has a proven track record when it comes to shaking up old business models and will probably rethink the role of newspapers in an increasingly digital age. Bezos, who spent just 1 percent of his estimated $25.2-billion net worth on the deal, isn’t someone who likes to stick with the status quo.
Many techies suggest the first step is to promote strategies that are already considered best practices at web companies.
Take, for example, the practice of personalization. Years ago, Bezos boasted that Amazon wanted to create a unique store for each user based on his or her purchases and preferences.
“If we have 4.5 million customers, we shouldn’t have one store,” Bezos told the Washington Post in 1998. “We should have 4.5 million stores.”
But few newspapers have come anywhere close to that high degree of customization, often fretting about the ethics of collecting and using personal data from readers.
And yet, a news start-up called Circa is doing exactly that. Founded by Ben Huh, Circa started as a mobile news app. Huh said Circa carefully tracks what stories a user follows or has read, and provides only new information when news breaks.
“The advantage of Circa is that by rethinking journalism from the ground up, we can build an individual relationship from the ground up,” Huh said. “We know what you know, and what you don’t know. The shackles are completely off.”
Techies also scratch their heads at newspapers’ lack of interest and firepower in promoting their work across search engines and social networks.
Upworthy is a news aggregator focused on finding content and making it go viral. Co-founder Eli Pariser said Upworthy is focused on packaging, distribution and marketing of content, rather than the creation. Whereas newspapers have fleets of trucks leaving a warehouse to deliver its product each day, Pariser is baffled that many newspapers might have only one or two interns focused on distributing the stories online.
Upworthy employs curators who find interesting stories or videos. They write at least 25 headlines, trying to find the one most likely to catch readers’ attention. Then they put it online, and carefully observe real-time metrics to see who is clicking, reading and sharing to further tweak the headline and packaging of the story.
Pariser believes that Bezos could have a big impact by bringing such sophisticated marketing practices, common at e-commerce sites like Amazon, to newspapers.
“Many news organizations just push publish and hope for the best,” Pariser said. “We think about how we take great content and get it out to people online.”
Of course, Silicon Valley believes there’s an endless font of innovations Bezos could bring: More e-commerce, for instance.
Some have speculated that the Bezos-run Post could become the first major newspaper to abandon daily print publishing.
A voracious reader of news and novels, Bezos’ invention of the Kindle e-reader in 2007 changed how people read. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t see much of a future for dead-tree media.
“There is one thing I’m certain about: There won’t be printed newspapers in 20 years,” he said in a November interview with German newspaper Berliner Zeitung. “Maybe as luxury items in some hotels that want to offer them as an extravagant service. Printed papers won’t be normal in 20 years.”
As a fully electronic newspaper, the Post could evolve into a digital platform that would compete with not only other papers but wire services and other media stations as well, said technology and media consultant Janet Asteroff.
Bezos has already been experimental with news media at Amazon and in his own investments.
With Kindle Singles, he has made individual articles available for purchase on the e-commerce site. Four years ago, Amazon introduced a larger-format version of its e-reader that was designed to better fit newspapers’ oversized pages; the Kindle DX never seemed to take off among consumers. This year, Bezos personally invested in Business Insider, a business and technology news website.
But the most important change Bezos could bring to the news industry is cultural.
Soon after the deal was announced Monday, Bezos insisted in a letter to Post employees that the newspaper’s values would remain the same and that he’d keep his private interests out of the newspaper’s pages. But he also said changes were ahead: “We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment.”
In Silicon Valley, start-ups know that along with inventing and experimenting comes the need to tolerate a high degree of failure.
Jim Bettinger, director of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford University, shifted the focus of his program a few years ago to focus on entrepreneurial journalism projects. Bettinger, a news industry veteran, said cultural challenges like tolerating failure and learning from it quickly are often the hardest ones for newspapers to embrace.
“One thing that has always struck me about how people in Silicon Valley approach big changes is by asking, ‘What is the opportunity here?’” Bettinger said. “The mainstream journalist mind-set has been, ‘What do we need to preserve? What bad things can we fight off?”
Making those cultural changes might be more possible with an owner like Bezos. He is someone who has the patience and willingness to inject millions of dollars into a variety of endeavors that should benefit the Post as it tries to turn itself around, said Colin Sebastian, a research analyst at Robert W. Baird & Co.
“He’s very long-term focused, and he has a vision that short-term bumps in the world aren’t going to distract him,” Sebastian said. With the Post, “he sees more value-creation opportunity there. I don’t think he’s being charitable.”