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.
They’ve tried, certainly editorially, to invest in those kinds of voices. And they’ve had some success editorially. Ezra’s a very strong asset for them. But whether you could really build a total strategy out of that, while also solving the problems regionally of revenue generation and circulation, that might be a big ask.
Bezos has a reputation for managing Amazon for growth rather than profits, and as long as we’re speculating about his intentions, is that something that we should be encouraged by?
It could be relevant. As you say, we can only speculate about his intentions at this stage. I don’t know him and have never met him, and I don’t really know how to interpret the record that he presents as the new owner of The Washington Post. But I would divide it into aspects of his record that seem encouraging potentially and aspects of his record that raise questions.
On the encouraging side, the fact that he has managed Amazon with very long time horizons in mind, is I think very encouraging. He built that company, not for the next quarter, and not even for the next year, but for decades. And he’s still arguing to shareholders and analysts that they need to be patient while it continues down this very long horizon. So that’s a temperament, a strategic perspective, that he’ll need. Secondly, he has resources; how deep he wants to reach into his pockets to support this effort, who knows. But he certainly has resources and the chances to employ them. And the other thing that I’ve heard people mention that sounds right to me is that he’s a fierce competitor. The book industry, and lots of people I know, love to hate Amazon because it is fearsome and effective when it chooses to compete on price or market share. That comes from the top, that spirit of really wanting to own something when you go into it. And if he brings that commitment to the Post and defines the landscape broadly and ambitiously, if he really wants to build a great, enduring journalism organization on a global scale or on a national or even just regionally, it could be an asset.