On the positive side he brings a very strong track record in the new data science of marketing and business. He was an early innovator in using Big Data and customer preferences to disrupt incumbent industries. And he’s a quant guy. He understands the power of not just algorithms, which is sort of a broad term—a placeholder for a lot of different kinds of computer science—but really data in all of its dynamic forms for business. He saw a kind of arbitrage opportunity in the book business and other kinds of retail, where he used data to break into industries. And so he brings that expertise, that management culture. Also, by the way, Amazon executes exceptionally well. That may be 90 percent of why they’ve been successful; maybe the data science is less important than we on the outside think. But he brings that track record, that management culture, those insights about consumer preferences and how to monetize them to a problem in local newspapering that is now befuddling every owner of local newspaper franchises in the country: How do you reach and hold audiences through digital channels when they have so many other media choices besides newspapers? And then, when you can hold them in significant numbers, as The Washington Post has—even though its circulation has diminished, its total eyeballs in the Washington area remains very powerful—how do you achieve enough revenue from that audience to pay for the costs of newsgathering as traditionally defined, and how do you keep a newsroom funded and committed to high-quality journalism while you’re trying to solve this equation? That’s the tricky part.
BuzzFeed and others have tried to figure out how you can learn from consumer preferences and how you can feed them the information that you think they want. But the data science as purely a marketing proposition, decoupled from journalism, doesn’t necessarily create a business model, and it certainly doesn’t necessarily create high-quality journalism. So figuring out how to do all of that at the same time, that’s the tricky part. And that may be a little bit beyond Bezos’s experience and Amazon’s record.
Assuming Bezos is inclined, is it too late to leverage the Post brand, its tradition of great journalism, into kind of a global entity you mentioned earlier?
That’s a great question, and I don’t know. I was walking around this morning and muttering, “It may be too late.” But it might not be. It depends on how powerful Bezos’s insights are into data science and marketing, because he could give The New York Times a little bit of a run in the digital universe if he chose to compete in some of the spaces they’re carving out for themselves with digital revenue.
But it would require a content strategy that would need investments, and I’m not sure that that’s what he has in mind. It would require a degree of commitment, after the shrinkage and after the decade of experimentation and not really getting around the corner. It might be hard to reverse direction that way. It might not even be advisable. I think that he has a lot of problems to solve just within the existing franchise that befuddled Don and a lot of other very smart people. So it might be that his intention is just to try to solve the equation as a matter of regional retail advertising, audience marketing, customer connections, and multiple revenue streams.
The Washington Post brand—the reputation of this paper for enterprising journalism, for a kind of public-minded mission, for global relevancy—that was born in the era of the 1970s. And the generation that came of age during that period—myself as a young journalist, but also lots of readers from the Boomer era—is still alive in the United States. And it still has a nostalgic memory of The Washington Post’s importance during the Nixon administration and otherwise. But it’s an aging generation. The real challenge is to make that brand relevant to the generation that’s coming out of college now, and that would be harder to do.
You could argue that they’re doing that to some extent with the Ezra Klein franchise.