On the less encouraging side, I take note from his first statement, in which he said it’s all about what readers what. Well, yes, but… That’s the data science and customer preference speaking. And in my experience watching this the last 10 years, it’s very difficult to build a great newsroom when you overemphasize the data science of customer preferences. You already have a newsroom that’s half or two-thirds of its former self and in a state of anxiety now doubled by this ownership transition. You have to be clear about what matters, and that journalism matters. Now, if he retains Marty Baron, who’s a great editor, and commits himself to that sort of thing, that would be great. But I don’t know.
I think we’ve seen so many outside CEOs and successes in other industries come to the newspaper industry with the assumption that with the insights they’ve gained from their other successes will be applicable. Brian Tierney, who bought the Inquirer in Philadelphia. Sam Zell in Chicago. And I shudder to think that if we went back and looked at the comments 24 hours after those announcements how much optimism we would discover—never mind how much hubris the new owners would have expressed. But, look, Jeff Bezos is leagues above those two examples; his intelligence, and his accomplishments, and his character even, I think, in comparison to Zell at least. But is that enough? People really don’t know what they don’t know. The news business is as much art as science. And that’s the part that I wonder about; it’ll be a really interesting experiment.
The other thing that I worry about, just on the face of it, is that he said he has a day job that he loves, that he doesn’t intend to run this hands-on. Well, of course, nobody buys something for $250 million in the heart of the nation’s capital without getting involved, so I take that with a grain of salt. But this really is something that, if he wants to transform it successfully, and to learn about how to synthesize his insights about the digital universe with the traditions of journalistic excellence and aspirations that he’s inherited, he’s going to have to put both of his hands on it, at least for a while. And I don’t know that you can do that as a kind of hobby, at least for a couple or three years. So I worry about that kind of in-between approach. We don’t really have a model of success to rely on, of someone coming from another industry into the newspaper business in these last five or 10 years and using their insights from another industry to successfully solve these problems. Off the top of my head I can’t think of an example.
The reaction to the sale (along with the sale of The Boston Globe and the Koch brothers’ interest in the LA Times) has included a fair amount of suggestion that we are entering another era of the powerful media mogul/businessman, not unlike the Pulitzer-Hearst era. Are people making too much of that?
So far I think the comparisons to Pulitzer and Hearst are very much premature. I mean, Pulitzer and Hearst were committed newspapermen. Pulitzer spent his whole life after he got out of the army as a mercenary in the Civil War as a newspaperman, and a little bit as a politician. And Hearst, too, came East with his father’s fortune at his back, as a man who knew exactly what he wanted to do, which was to dominate the world of newspaper publishing. And the insights that they acquired over their lifetimes were the insights of lifelong editors and publishers, and so that’s not quite where we are here. These buyers have deep pockets, but none of them has spent a lifetime in journalism. Jeff Bezos is 49, and he’s devoted his life to data science and its insights, the insights it offers into retailing and marketing, and now he’s turning to the newspaper industry just as he earlier turned to space tourism. He’s a very bright guy. Maybe if he throws himself at it he’ll solve this equation that devoted publishers like Don have been struggling with—and a lot of other companies by the way, including the Hearst Corporation, are struggling with. Maybe he’ll solve the equation and do everybody a service that way. But to compare him to Pulitzer or Hearst doesn’t seem quite right.