What we should have done, starting the minute Kaiser sent around his memo, was enlist legions of forward-thinking journalists to work alongside legions of eager developers and reinvent online news. Instead, we had too few journalists working with inadequate technological support, for overcautious bosses.
As a result, we were left in the dust by technology companies with visionary leaders and armies of developers, who did amazing things—first with commoditized data and then with user-provided data. After a while, it seemed like our ever-dwindling newsrooms simply had no chance to catch up.
But now, maybe, we have an outside shot.
Especially in an age of mobile devices, our goal must be to offer people information relevant to where they are, who they are, what they are doing, and what they’re interested in. Nobody understands that better that Jeff Bezos—who also, conveniently, has the money to do something about it.
And there is still no single group of people more capable of discovering, remembering and communicating useful information than the denizens of a newsroom, especially when you take into account such factors as trust and context. (See my paean to the value of beat reporters.)
The editorial possibilities are enormous. But for an industry dying for want of a revenue model, the revenue implications are even greater.
Since a goodly chunk of this enormous, targeted torrent of information that people want relates to things they may have to spend money on, if we do this right we can actually return to the role that historically was so lucrative for our industry: connecting buyers and sellers.
When it comes to advertising, we’ve been spending most of our creative energy coming up with new and even more infuriating and unblockable ways to get between the user and what they’re looking for.
But with Bezosian technology—technology that helps us know our users and serve them appropriate content—we could, instead, offer up advertising our users would actually be interested in.
Consider, for instance, that one advantage we have over Craigslist is that Craig only knows what you want when you search for it. If we understand our users sufficiently, we can offer them opportunities to buy things they don’t even know they want, or things they’ve been looking for that are suddenly on sale, or things that people like them are buying.
A Washington Post mobile app that completely adjusts to who you are and where you are could combine editorial information, data, and reviews with advertiser-provided information about where the things you like are available for purchase, and for how much. Let’s encourage issue and financial advertisers to create products that take note of what the readers are interested in, and engage with them by posing and answering relevant questions.
There’s also huge public-service potential from embracing the medium in ways that have been beyond us in the past. It goes back to what Don Graham said about the glue. Ironically enough, in this technological era, it may be that only by successfully serving a fragmented audience can we uphold our mission of bringing people together.
Profiles of people in the neighborhood or engaged in civic acts used to be a staple of local news, and for good reason. Perhaps we can use our new abilities to encourage our readers to get to know each other based on shared interests—or on their diversity of interests.
If we know what people care about, we can help them express themselves and even empower them as citizens. We can help make local organizations and governments more responsive. We can help them make communities stronger.
If we’re able to create news and information sites that connect people with each other in a way that they welcome and that adds value to their and others’ experiences, we’ve accomplished both Graham’s and Kaiser’s goals—and more.
Maybe I’m just a little giddy with the possibilities, after so many years of relentless decline. But now I can at least fantasize about armies of visionary journalists working together with armies of eager developers, toward the goal of reinvention.