Look, I’m not reflexively opposed to the sale of my home-town newspaper, The Washington Post, to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, though I was, like pretty much everyone else on the planet, stunned by the announcement late Monday afternoon and the bargain-basement price — a mere $250 million — of the deal. As a friend quipped on my Facebook wall, “If I had known they were just going to GIVE away one of the greatest institutions of all time, we could have all pooled our pennies and bought it.” Indeed. I have always dreamed of having an attorney general of the United States be so unhinged by my vast power that he’d go all locker-roomy over my lady parts.
Anyway: I will confess to getting choked up when I read stories about the Graham family’s multigenerational commitment to the paper and the city of Washington. David Remnick’s haunting piece in The New Yorker about Donald Graham (chair and chief executive of the Washington Post Company) choosing to break his own heart by selling the paper rather than break the Post by holding onto it rings true to what I’ve learned about the family over the years. The love and loyalty employees felt toward Graham is evident in dozens of tributes and reactions that have been produced in the past 48 hours, including these by Ruth Marcus, Kathleen Parker, and Michelle Singletary. So, for now at least, I’m buying the story that Graham’s decision to sell, made in concert with his niece, Post publisher Katharine Weymouth, was anguished, noble, and quite possibly in the best interests of the paper, journalism, and the world. Like others, I’m also encouraged by the tone as well as the substance of the statement Bezos made to Post employees the day the sale was announced. It was modest, reassuring, deferential to the Grahams, cognizant of the fact that journalism is not just a business but a public trust with a unique role to play in a democratic society. Bezos affirms the paper’s old values and its obligations to its readers, even as he acknowledges the need for change and embraces “the opportunity for invention.”
Newspapers have been struggling for decades to hold onto readers and make money in a world transformed by bits and screens. If Bezos has ideas for how to do that more effectively than Don Graham and the Post‘s other ink-stained wretches have been able to do, then more power to him. A deep-pocketed internet mogul known for his patience might be just what is needed to figure out what newspapers ought to be and do in a post-print information ecosystem.
At the same time, I get more than a little queasy reading stories suggesting that we might be on the brink of the Amazonification of the newspaper industry. A paragraph like this one brings a mild burning sensation to the back of my throat:
Technology analysts said that the kind of predictive analytics perfected by Amazon could be used to provide Post subscribers with personalized news feeds based on where they live and what they have read before. People browsing The Post’s Web site or tablet app could be served ads tailored to their past purchases, and then could buy products with a single click, media industry experts said. Reader voices could be integrated into online storytelling, with the community voting on the most valuable comments.
Reader voices could be integrated into online storytelling. I’m sorry, sweetheart, but have you ever clicked into the toxic waste dump that is the comment section on any story WaPo ever runs? Lord, save me from a world that caters to and includes such voices! Seriously, though, folks: Is customer-centric news really what the world needs and a democratic society requires? I know, I know — Suddenly I sound like one of those fist-shaking gloom-and-doomers railing about how the interwebz are leading increasingly to a personalization of the system of communications, potentially locking each of us up in a “Daily Me” in which our opinions are never challenged and enabling us to avoid news altogether if we’d rather bathe our brains in gossip, sports news, and cat videos instead. The concept of the “Daily Me” is elaborated by law prof Cass Sunstein in his book Republic.com. The argument is provocative, but I’ve always been resistant to it, finding it in some ways both techno-phobic and elitist. Sunstein overestimates, in my judgment, the virtues of an old media public sphere in which what he calls “general-interest intermediaries” expose readers to a broad range of thought and opinion. (How broad was that range, really, and who had access to those limited old media spaces?) Further, he underestimates some of the potential benefits of a mediascape that empowers the people formerly known as the audience to participate much more actively. Surely that is good for democracy, right?
Of course it is, but I have to admit I began anxiously imagining a nation of “Daily Me” readers this morning when I saw that story on Bezos’ obsession with the customer’s experience on the front page of the paper he will soon own. Thus, when I got to the Opinion page and saw Carter Eskew’s brief reflection on what kind of owner Bezos might turn out to be, I found myself nodding in agreement:
For now, we have to rely on patrons to save journalism. What kind of patron will Bezos be? Yesterday, he said, reassuringly, that “the values” of the Post don’t need changing but went on to say that readers will be the publication’s “touchstone” as will “understanding what they care about.” This last bit worries me. Bezos built the greatest retailer in history understanding and anticipating what people want and giving it to them. But that’s an incomplete model for the news business. What people want is local, sports, human interest, gossip and rancorous and self-reinforcing debate. All that is great, but it needs to be put in service of what people and our democracy need: hard information, accountability, truth. That is what Bezos bought yesterday, and you can’t put a price on it. Now he must protect it.
Even the most committed techno-utopianist has to admit that it isn’t enough to give people only what they want when it comes to news and information in a democratic society. That tension between What Readers Want and What (We Think) Readers Need is one that has always bedeviled the news business, and it’s been exacerbated hugely in the
desperate hyper-competitive battle for eyeballs, clicks, and money that the business has become in recent years, particularly for news entities that are owned by publicly traded companies (like, you know, The Washington Post Co.). Putting the Post back into private hands may save it from the relentless cost-cutting that would have been necessary to placate shareholders, but we have to hope now that Jeff Bezos truly appreciates what he’s bought. If he’s the good guy and the visionary that everybody seems to think he is, then surely he’ll come up with something more creative and socially beneficial than the Amazonification of the news industry.
Right? Tell us what you think, loyal readers. Is this the Best. Thing. Ever? Or proof that we are doomed to know only what we already know because our corporate computer overlords think it’s all we want to know?Let us hear your loud, lovely, and well-informed reader voices!