Media

Hey, Bezos, want to revitalize the Washington Post? Invest in people

Image Credit: Source: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post

Lucas Hendrickson is a writer, editor and large land mammal based in Nashville, Tenn.

The media world — both the legacy and modern varieties — was gobsmacked Monday when news broke that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos had agreed to purchase the Washington Post for $250 million. For me, it was a nice change of pace to see news break that didn’t involve a body count, and didn’t come out in drips and drabs for days on end (see Rodriguez, Alex).

After the jokes subsided about how if he’d acted a week earlier Bezos could’ve added the Boston Globe as a bundle and gotten free shipping, tech pundits began falling all over themselves to pick out which Amazon innovations could be ported over onto the evolving WaPo, despite the fact Bezos is buying the paper personally, with no involvement from the behemoth e-retailer.

Predictive analytics, customized news feeds based on location and previous history, weaving reader voices into the storytelling … all these things and more have been thrown onto the “what could be” pile for a reinvented Post. And that’s great. Vision is good, reaching is good, planning is good. But here’s my suggestion for the greatest innovation and investment the Bezos-led Post could make: its people.

Let reporters report. Let editors edit, photographers shoot, designers make it look great. Let sales and marketing professionals convince the rest of the world how fantastic the product is, and lawyers back them all up when needed. (I’d say “let columnists opine,” but we’ve got plenty of that happening both inside and outside of newspapers already. Besides, as put forth in the terrific 1994 Ron Howard film The Paper, columnists are just reporters who write too long.)

That said, reporters are expected to write, edit, take still photos, shoot and edit video, record and edit sound, post to the internal CMS and the web, appear on TV and radio, create and grow their own brands, and make a decent pot of coffee for the newsroom. The end result? Platforms filled with content that has less impact than it could, because the endless news cycle “demands” chucking the next thing into the pipeline.

Bezos has the opportunity to reverse that trend, at least for the Post, and his open letter to the current Post employees seems to suggest he gets that:

“I would highlight two kinds of courage the Grahams [the Post's longtime family owners] have shown that I hope to channel. The first is the courage to say wait, be sure, slow down, get another source… The second is the courage to say follow the story, no matter the cost.”

Recognizing and sticking to those ideas are what’s going to drive the Post into the next phase of the news business … not automation, not innovation, not experimentation.

And certainly not by feeding the trolls. Newspaper comments sections are vast digital tracts of worthless real estate, populated by people fully content to trash the valuable information above them simply for their own amusement.

The idea of “community building” through comments sections has been an abject failure, and has done more to turn off longtime and potential readers from the organizations that have worked so hard to bring them that information in the first place.

Productivity firebrand Merlin Mann made this prescient statement via Twitter a few years ago: “Every consultard who announces ‘Comments!’ are the magic bullet for news sites should publicly read them aloud for one 8-hour day each week.”

So avoiding the temptation to enable more needless voices to pollute the stream should be one of the overarching goals of the Post’s new team. They should subscribe to the idea that just because you can (in this case, create “avenues” for readers to be part of the storytelling experience), doesn’t mean you should.

Letting his people do the work that needs to be done will be both Bezos’ greatest challenge, and ultimately, best investment in the future of the Post.

That work takes time, skill, patience, determination and resources. It takes an infrastructure that understands what news is, what news isn’t and how to present both things to an interested public in all the forms the modern media landscape requires.

But it starts with investing in a news operation that’s engaged, activated and encouraged to do the best work it possibly can, which more often than not involves doing one thing excellently, not 10 things haphazardly.

Is this a potential model that would work anywhere else? Probably not. But it’s got to start somewhere, and someone with Bezos’ resources, experience and willpower has a better shot than most.

C’mon, Jeff. You’ve proven once that the “Build it, and they will come” axiom can live in the Internet age, especially when you build it right. Try it again, and give us the national newspaper we deserve.

Lucas Hendrickson is a writer, editor and large land mammal based in Nashville, Tenn. He’s written for local, regional and national publications for more than 20 years, covering entertainment, media, sports and technology. He can be found on Twitter at @lucastypes.