The Newspaper is Dead – Long Live the Newspaper

By Ben Lieblich If anybody needed a reminder that old media channels are giving way to new ones, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos provided it recently when he purchased the Washington Post for a mere $250 million – about 1% of his net worth, and less than 0.2% of Amazon’s stock value.

Bezos has announced that he doesn’t yet know what he will do with the paper.  But there are four things we do know:

1. The newspaper is no longer a viable source for news.  By the time Washington Post fact-checkers verified the spelling of Tahir Square, observers on the ground had already Tweeted news of the Egyptian revolution.  What’s happening right now – the “new” in “news” – is available primarily through social media, and secondarily through other online outlets, as well as radio and television.

2. The newspaper is no longer a viable vehicle for commerce.  Once upon a time, the best way to find a job, a car, a house, or a garage sale was to comb through the newspaper classifieds.  That almost seems like a joke today.  Newspapers, bookstores, electronics stores, etc. are fading into oblivion – and Amazon is a major reason why.

3. The newspaper’s customer data, once valuable, are now nearly worthless.  Thirty years ago, a coupon for Yummies cereal ended up in your Sunday supplement because the paper matched your reading habits against general demographic information for your zip code.  Today, Amazon can provide Yummies with the age, gender and full spectrum of consumer preferences of every member of your family.  Which source will provide the cereal brand with greater insights to support its next promotion?  We live in a big data world now.

4. The value of news content is declining.  The cover price of the weekday Washington Post is $1.25, and the delivery price is a fraction of that.  But readership is plummeting because people can get the same information faster, and free, online.

So if the Washington Post cannot survive by selling content, advertisements, or data, what’s left?  I would advise Bezos to turn the Post into a forum for ideas, where experts in current events (as well as food, movies, and sports) engage with readers in a dynamic exchange.  I believe well-reasoned analysis is still valuable, and the editorial page is the best place I know for the type of slow, thoughtful insight that can inform – and sometimes change –opinion.

Every community needs a commons where people assemble to get to know each other and to reach consensus.  The Washington Post is well-positioned to play that role for the beltway set, and I think people will pay a small fee to be a part of an engaging dialog with true experts.  Does this sound like a social media business?  Well, yes.

I would also advise Bezos to stop producing hard copy.  In high school, I woke up at 5:00 am each day to run my Washington Post delivery route.  I have a true fondness for those days and for the paper itself.  But newsprint is costly, environmentally unfriendly, and obsolete.

What do you think?  What advice would you give Jeff Bezos in managing the Washington Post?