The man himself probably has no firm ideas on what happens next. “This is uncharted terrain which will require experimentation,” he told Post staff shortly after taking over. Interestingly, this is not a corporate merger. Bezos bought the newspaper out of his personal pocket; no funds from Amazon were involved.
Those pockets are deep – Bezos is reportedly worth $25 billion, easily able to cover the losses of roughly $50 million a year the Post is currently suffering – so there will be time for consideration and experimentation.
One thing he will consider is that although it is deep in the financial mire the Washington Post is one of the world’s great newspapers, renowned for its aggressive yet responsible reporting. Its breaking of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s turned reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein into media superstars and brought down a sitting president. It has won 47 Pulitzer Prizes and has representatives in 16 major cities across the globe. Its brand is recognised and trusted.
So where to from here? As I have written in previous blogs, the future of newspapers as papers is limited, yet many are struggling to come to terms with a mixed media future in which online publication plays the dominant role.
To be fair, the problem is not entirely of the newspaper owners’ making. The old thinking that everything on the internet should be free has persisted, and attempts to get their readers to pay online for what they had willingly paid for at the news stands in the past have been mixed to say the least.
And yet it is clear that while newspapers are in decline, the thirst for news is still strong. In fact it is probably stronger than at any time in recent history. In some ways attitudes today can be compared to the conditions that led to the advent of newspapers in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Previously people had had to rely on rumours and gossip for what was happening in the world outside their immediate environment. Facts got mangled, became victims of exaggeration and lurid imaginations. People turned to the fledgling newssheets as a reasonably reliable source of information.
And in the 21st century the internet has become a much faster and more efficient way of spreading information – but also misinformation, gossip, rumour and downright lies. People want to know what is going on, locally, nationally, and internationally, but they want it in the medium with which they are most comfortable, and increasingly that is online, through their laptops, tablets, mobile phones and whatever else technology is devising.
The Editor-in-Chief of Huffington Post, the news and blogging website, Arianna Huffington, says the Washington Post purchase is an opportunity to move the emphasis away from the future of newspapers to the future of journalism. Her belief is that great journalism can be done online, but there must be ways of finding it among the dross spewed out each millisecond by every bigot and crazy with a computer.
The most valuable commodity the Washington Post can bring to the online community is its goodwill, built up over the decades by outstanding journalists, editors and photographers. This, combined with Bezos’ proven ability to create hugely profitable internet businesses, may show the way print enterprises can survive, even flourish, in the digital age.