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USA Today Column: Bezos a false Messiah for old media

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Photo: Evan Vucci, AP

Photo: Evan Vucci, AP

Originally published in USA Today

The sale of The Washington Post to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos won’t save print journalism. In fact, it could speed up its demise.

Just days before Bezos announced he would be personally buyingThe Post, the company he founded and still leads accomplished another first:Amazon.com published an exclusive interview with President Obama. Yup, you guessed it – the presidential interview was available exclusively on the Kindle, Amazon’s proprietary distribution platform. And so it appears that just as the Kindle is opening up new potential revenue opportunities for investigative journalism through programs likeKindle Singles, Amazon finds itself with a new potential competitor: its own CEO

With many major newspapers in the United States up for sale this summer – for pennies on the dollar — the news about Bezos is an exciting surprise for a moribund industry. But Bezos’ acquisition of The Post doesn’t change the brutal reality of the newspaper business. Today, it is easier and cheaper to produce and distribute news than ever before in human history, while making money through the newspaper model is getting harder by the day.

For over a century, newspapers made money primarily through advertising and subscriptions. Then the internet came along and blew away all of the assumptions about print advertising. News became “unbundled” – you could get the sports page without paying for the business section. As advertising moved online, it tumbled in value, while Google and Craigslist took off with much of the classified revenue newspapers used to depend on.

The Washington Post, despite being the flagship paper of our nation’s capital, is no exception. The Post’s own revenue has dropped 40% since 2005; last year it lost $54 million. The Kaplan educational testing business, owned by The Post, essentially subsidized the company’s flagship as the newspaper business model failed. Meanwhile, in the other Washington, Kindle Readers are hungry for more content – and that includes investigative journalism.

Journalism – especially the kind of investigative journalism The Post excels at – is as important as ever. In July of 2010, The Washington Post published a series of articles titled “Top Secret America.” These investigative reports detailed the alarming, dramatic growth of intelligence agencies since Sept. 11, 2001. Anyone who read the series could not have been at all surprised by Edward Snowden’s recent revelations.The Post spent two years researching and painstakingly building the case for the dramatic overreach of the U.S. government’s intelligence and surveillance apparatus. More than a dozen journalists worked on the three-part series – not to mention other research and fact-checking staff. It was the kind of old-fashioned reporting that mattered and that could not be replicated online.

The role of The Washington Post in holding power accountable, from Watergate to Top Secret America, is essential in our democracy. But if Bezos really wanted to invest in the future of journalism, he would invest in new business models that might bootstrap the next generation of news – exactly the kinds of models Amazon is actively pursuing.

 

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