Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Jeff Bezos Reveals He Doesn’t Have a Plan to Save the Washington Post

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Asa Mathat / AllThingsD.com

Just because Jeff Bezos is going to own the press doesn’t mean he has changed his approach to the press. When he speaks to journalists, he says nothing.

The Washington Post has the first interview with the new owner-to-be of the Washington Post today. If you’re expecting Bezos to reveal anything about his plans for the paper, then you’ve never sat through an Amazon earnings call or listened to a Jeff Bezos interview.

The gist: Like he said before, he won’t be running the paper day to day. And, like he does with Amazon, Bezos plans to manage the paper for the long haul.

But, when Bezos won’t tell you how many Kindles he’s sold, he’s not saying anything because he doesn’t want to clue you in to his plan. The key question for the Post and its readers (and employees): Does he have a plan this time?

If you take him at face value, he doesn’t. He’s going to take time — “years” — to experiment, and the only thing he knows is that it’s important for readers to get value out of reading the paper.

It would be easy enough to dismiss that non-talk as cover for whatever Bezos really is planning for the paper. Except for this part, where Bezos argues convincingly that newspapers in general, and the Post in particular, are screwed. If they produce anything of value, the Web immediately swallows it up and spits it out for free:

But Bezos suggested that the current model for newspapers in the Internet era is deeply flawed: “The Post is famous for its investigative journalism,” he said. “It pours energy and investment and sweat and dollars into uncovering important stories. And then a bunch of Web sites summarize that [work] in about four minutes and readers can access that news for free. One question is, how do you make a living in that kind of environment? If you can’t, it’s difficult to put the right resources behind it. … Even behind a paywall [digital subscription], Web sites can summarize your work and make it available for free. From a reader point of view, the reader has to ask, ‘Why should I pay you for all that journalistic effort when I can get it for free’ from another site?”

This would be an excellent rationale for an investment in a Web aggregator like Business Insider, and, of course, Bezos has done just that.

But unless Bezos is suggesting that the Post is going to stop “uncovering important stories” because there’s no money in it – and I don’t think he is suggesting that* — then what he’s really saying is that he can’t figure out how to make it work. For now. Just like everyone else.

* Quentin Hardy, who is smart, thinks Bezos will in fact move to a “give the people what they want and/or are willing to pay for” mode, where Cyrus trumps Syria. And if he was making the investment on behalf of Amazon, I might give that theory some credence. But this is a personal investment, and I don’t think Bezos wants to be a guy known for asset-stripping an American institution.


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