(cross-posted from my Tumblr)
A couple of blocks from my house there’s a park where people play soccer. A few years ago the city put down artificial turf there, replacing what had been an expanse of dust and scattered scraggly grass. A few people raised a ruckus about this, complaining about the environment, aesthetics, and what have you. They wanted the city to maintain natural grass that could stand up to constant soccer, frisbee, families, etc. It didn’t deter them in the least that this was impossible — the only real choice was between artificial turf or dust.
Which brings me to the Washington Post. Yes, some people are concerned about the owner of Amazon controlling the paper that’s still the premier read in the nation’s capital, where lobbyists reign and laws are made. Some people have reacted to the news by decrying Amazon’s labor practices, economic models, effect on industries it’s subverted, etc.
All points worth making, but they ignore something fundamental: The choice for the Post — like the vast majority of legacy metro newspapers — was between artificial turf and dust. The Post wasn’t going to get bigger. It wasn’t going to turn nimbly to try new things. It wasn’t going to be able to reinvent itself against a fleet of smaller competitors, each zeroing in on a chunk of its business without having to worry about shoring up a larger enterprise. No, the Post was going to keep getting smaller and smaller while trying to bridge its own contradictions.
Now, assuming Jeff Bezos will spend more of his own money than the $250 million he’s already plunked down, the Post has money and time to experiment and try to become something new. Which means it has a chance to survive.
The Post no longer has to answer to shareholders, who have done enormous damage to newspapers by assuming that the profits from an anomalous period in history were the norm. And if Bezos brings the same acumen to the news business that he’s brought to every other business that’s now part of the Amazon empire, the Post will have a chance to radically reinvent itself in ways it wasn’t going to be able to explore so long as it was run as a publicly traded company or by career newspaper people.
That’s not an indictment of the Post’s previous owners; rather, it’s an acknowledgment of the enormous challenge facing today’s news organizations.
The modern newspaper is doomed, but it’s been living on borrowed time for decades. That’s because the traditional newspaper business isn’t really about information, let alone civics or democracy. It’s about printing and distribution within geographic protections. And the failure to understand that — or, more fairly, to be able to act on that understanding — is what’s devastated the news business.
For a couple of centuries, if you wanted to sell something — a bale of hay or a couch or a Chevy — the only practical way to do it was to pay your local printing-and-distribution monopolist for an ad.
Some people are happy reading nothing but bundles of ads, but most people aren’t. So the printing-and-distribution monopolists looked for other information to go around those ads. They hired people to write about sports and review movies and recount crimes and talk about who was visiting whom and opine about politics and sometimes to explain complicated stuff happening far away. The printing-and-distribution monopolists created bundles of information designed to appeal to people in the geographic area they controlled. Very few people in that area were interested in all of that information, but enough of them were interested in some of it to buy the paper and see the ads and keep the people who bought the ads happy.
That industry no longer exists. The printing and distribution monopoly has been shattered — it’s been replaced by my phone, of all things. Geography no longer limits the information available to me — that same phone will bring me information from the entire world. With the exception of small local papers, the newspaper industry continues to exist because of the habits and sentimental attachments of an ever-shrinking segment of aging readers. It’s not dead, but it’s doomed.
The news industry, on the other hand, is alive — in fact, it’s thriving. But it’s been forcibly separated from the revenue streams that allowed it to exist. New ones have to be discovered. We don’t know where they’ll be found or what they’ll pay for. But the people who are going to discover them will be the people who work in new digital industries, not the custodians of vanished ones.
They’ll be people like Jeff Bezos. At least let’s hope so.