Last week, Jeff Bezos bought Washington Post for 250m$ (162£), Amazon didn’t.
The tone of most media reportage implied a dismissal of Bezos’ retail background; how could a man with scant journalistic experience enter the newspaper fray? Let alone any traditional media organisation? This is one of America’s most respected investigative media houses.
Could Jeff Bezos use the same entrepreneurial vision that worked for Amazon to revive Washington Post? Or will his leadership stifle the editorial independence and existing values of the 136 year old organisation?
The Financial Times has described Jeff Bezos as secretive, expansive in his ambition and ruthless in his business dealings, making him sound like an old-school mogul in the style of Berlusconi, Murdoch, Maxwell et al.
Bezos might not have sat in newsrooms, but what he can guarantee is new age entrepreneur skills and a strong eye for customer service. He doesn’t fit the media tycoon model, and might yet prove himself as a reader-centric innovator.
In a letter to the employees of the Post, Jeff Bezos made it clear he would not meddle in the day-to-day operations of the company. He was quick to emphasise; ‘The values of The Post do not need changing. The paper’s duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners.’
It is common knowledge that accuracy, speed and trust are at the heart of traditional journalism values. But modern journalism is about marrying with core values while developing an entrepreneurial focus.
The website Mashable, in their article ‘Must have traits of a modern journalist,’ suggests that core journalism skills must now be married to business judgement, programing ability and open-minded experimentation.
Jeff Bezos has clearly demonstrated two of the three qualities by establishing one of the world’s most successful retail empires in the world. His patience and ability to look around corners has held him in good stead.
The newspaper industry is undergoing a technological upheaval. The media economics have changed. We have learned through the examples of Rupert Murdoch and Samuel Pearson that readers are willing to pay for content that is compelling. This has put greater constraints and transformed the dynamics of how large print organisations operate and deliver content.
Bezos’ attention to detail and philosophy of keeping the customer first has already done wonders for Amazon. In Amazon’s offices, a chair is kept empty in every meeting to symbolize the voice and needs of the customer, while the company often operates at a loss in order to maintain customer loyalty and long-term growth.
In the leadership principles listed on the Amazon website, customer obsession spearheads other values such as ownership, invent and simplify, and a few others. “Leaders,” the principles state, “work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust”.
Bezos comes from the world of e-commerce, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a compromise to the values of journalism. Unlike most entrepreneurs, his concern is not the competitors but the customers. Much remains to be seen whether the internet tycoon will try to extend his philosophy to a legacy newspaper and whether his current business ethos would be replicated in the Washington Post. But there’s no reason to think he can’t. After all, he has already revolutionised one printed media industry with the introduction of Kindle.
“I’m afraid the newspaper industry has not done a very good job of what to do on the web,” said Tony Ridder, former Knight Ridder chairman in an interview with Bloomberg TV.
“Nobody has really figured out a really successful formula. I think the New York Times is doing a good job now with their app on tablets, but he comes from such a completely different place, maybe he can come up with something which nobody in this industry has been able to figure,” he added.
And while many are sceptical on whether the acquisition is a question of deep pockets, or a quest to influence, mature commentators will realise that the proximity of newspapers to their sources of income is a standing issue.
“Is the … press honest or dishonest?” asked novelist George Orwell, whilst setting out his vision of a more socialist England in the essay The Lion and the Unicorn. “At normal times it is deeply dishonest. All the papers that matter live off their advertisements, and the advertisers exercise an indirect censorship over news. Yet I do not suppose there is one paper in England that can be straightforwardly bribed with hard cash.”
And so it may prove with Bezos – he will certainly be interested in profit, but he is unlikely to allow commercial requirements bleed heavily into the basic integrity of a trusted newspaper, and sacrifice the kind of customer trust that Amazon’s success is founded on.