The Printed Word

Douglas E. Schoen and Jessica Tarlov

The printing press rocked the world by spreading literature and news to the masses for the first time. A wild, bold entrepreneurial streak created the most efficient, durable way we consume information. The internet and digital journalism brought journalism 2.0: News that reveres openness, organization, community, truth and immediacy.

Internet billionaire, Amazon founder and new owner of the Washington Post Jeff Bezos is frequently labeled “2.0” in his version of business. There are only a handful of names so synonymous with technology.

But Bezos may become far more than ever before with his latest purchase – will he show us what information 3.0 looks like?

While the purchase of the Washington Post for $250 million by Bezos is hardly the first time a billionaire has bought a newspaper recently – Red Sox owner John Henry bought the Boston Globe for $70 million over the weekend and Warren Buffett has taken on over 30 papers in the last two years – Bezos is certainly the most interesting personality to foray into the world of print journalism to date.

Bezos made it clear that he wanted to keep the key players in senior management including Katharine Weymouth as CEO and publisher, Martin Baron as executive editor and Fred Hiatt as head of editorial. But there can be little doubt that even with the same people at the top, things are going to be very different at the Washington Post.

If you look back to Bezos’ letter to Amazon shareholders in 1997 when the company went public you can see, and maybe understand, a bit of what has been an entirely confusing decision to many. Bezos is all about long-term thinking and has the deep pockets to keep the paper going while he cooks up version 3.0.

“If everything you do needs to work on a three-year time horizon, then you’re competing against a lot of people. But if you’re willing to invest on a seven-year time horizon, you’re now competing against a fraction of these people because very few companies are willing to do that,” Bezos told Wired in 2011.

Even though Bezos will not be leading the paper in the day-to-day, there can be little doubt that he will want to infuse the paper with a business approach that has benefited Amazon. Bezos champions ideas like “working backwards” from a common goal, dedicating time to think about the future and tracking progress to long-term goals.

The internet has disrupted journalism, and thanks to its speed and lack of critical filtering, decision making has sometimes taken a beating. We’ve seen many cases where there’s been a shift towards more haphazard reporting. Social media brings tremendous benefits, but has its drawbacks particularly in terms of its reliability for authenticity and accuracy of reports. It is far better to preserve our priceless rights to know than not, but it has raised some long term questions about how it affects us, particularly in drawing the lines between safety and censorship, the ethics of truth versus responsibility.

Newspapers have obviously struggled to keep papers profitable without moving to an entirely online model. The same is true of bookstores where Bezos himself, through Amazon and specifically his Kindle product, have been responsible for making bookstores, in many cases, obsolete.

Bezos brings an outside the beltway perspective to an increasingly partisan field. He has spent almost equally little on Democratic and Republican candidates and is most frequently associated with a famously libertarian streak in the tech world. This, too, makes him a unique owner for the Post.

Is Bezos exactly the man to start another revolution? As Donald Graham said himself, “The Post could’ve survived under the company’s ownership and been profitable in the foreseeable future. But we wanted to do more than survive. I’m not saying this guarantees success, but it gives us a much greater chance of success.”

So is this the moment when we meet information 3.0? Will Bezos give us a newspaper that is a true marketplace of ideas?

As the Columbia Journalism Review notes, “This will be the first time a major newspaper has been owned by a tech revolutionary.” To be sure, Bezos is a tech revolutionary but more than anything else he is an entrepreneur – a disruptor and a game changer. And with print journalism in desperate need of a game changer it appears very possible that the Grahams have made the right choice.

Post associate editor Bob Woodward Woodward called the change “very sad”, but it is our view that Bezos’ purchase is more exhilarating than sad. The world is moving too fast for the old model and there are few who can keep up – and indeed invent – the new order. We are facing a possible re-imagining of the news. How exciting.