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Marcus Nelson is CEO and cofounder of Addvocate.
Can Jeff Bezos transfer his Midas touch from Amazon to usher in a “Golden Era” for the newspaper industry?
In a word: yes. While he announced today that he plans to provide guidance “from a distance” – the secret to this experiment will ultimately come down to Bezos’ infamous personality.
The Amazon CEO’s decision to purchase the Washington Post for $250 million was exactly what the Post needed. Bezos has the ability to keep the paper authentic and credible, while transitioning it into a competitive, profitable business.
The Bezos midas touch
Bezos isn’t the first tech titan to enter into the media arena. Steve Case did it with his AOL-Time Warner merger; Facebook tycoon Chris Hughes bought The New Republic. What sets Bezos apart is his knack for taking the long road to re-inventing entire industries.
Think about it. Bezos has already re-defined Amazon by creating the online shopping market we know today. The company transformed its back-end infrastructure into the nation’s leading Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS). The Kindle launched e-books into the mainstream, and today, for all intents and purposes, Amazon is the e-book marketplace. Bezos is also biting into the media world with instant video, Amazon Studios, even digital games, not to mention ownership in the Business Insider.
Why newspapers? Why not? Bezos is well-equipped to transform traditional journalism into modern, stackable, impactful and sharable content. He’s already revolutionized books, and there’s no reason he won’t succeed with newspapers.
People associate quality with a newspaper’s brand. The key will be to connect with readers in such a way that they continue to care deeply about the newspaper’s survival and are willing to pay for that — much in the way people are willing to suffer through PBS’s telethons to support the quality content they’ve come to appreciate and adore.
In the Washington Post, Bezos has a credible news service that people are passionate about, and an established personality. The Post’s job is to authentically capture the discourse that affects our freedom and democracy. Bezos would be a fool to influence that. Much in the way he did with Zappos, he wants the brand to be left alone. “The values of The Post do not need changing,” he wrote in his letter to the Washington Post. “The paper’s duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners. I won’t be leading The Washington Post day-to-day. I am happily living in ‘the other Washington’ where I have a day job that I love.”
Saving the face of the Washington Post
So we don’t have to worry about the Post descending into punditry, but it does have to stop bleeding money. $250 million was the magic number for the New York Times, which recently paid off its loan in that amount to Mexican telecom oligarch Carlos Slim. Bezos, who takes the long view, hasn’t seemed to mind losing money upfront through Amazon Prime.
The real question is, what must Bezos do in order to take the Post back to profitability, without divesting it of the personality that readers value so much?
It’s a matter of integrating smart, snackable short pieces with long-form investigative articles. Bezos must find the perfect mix for the unique needs of the Post’s readers. AllThingsD, owned by Dow Jones, is one example of an online news publication that has succeeded by finding the right blend of short-form content and longer, well-documented articles for readers wanting to dive deep. Outlets like Quartz and The Daily Beast are also reinventing the content platform in a smart, informed manner, and building their own audiences in the process.
The Post should also retain its personality by holding onto the journalists that people already love to read. The New York Times recently suffered a serious blow to its reputation by losing wunderkind statistician and writer Nate Silver. Stars such as Silver write the stories that express a newspaper’s personality, and that personality is what keeps readers coming back.
Lost in translation
Bezos himself admits he’s not sure which direction the paper will take. “There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy,” he writes. “We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment. Our touchstone will be readers, understanding what they care about …”
If Bezos operates as I predict he will, within the next five years, he’ll capture and package the manner by which a new generation consumes news — and transition the Post into the next generation of smart media. And if readers feel that little has been lost in the process, Bezos – and the entire newspaper industry – will have won.
Marcus Nelson has founded five successful startups. He is now the founder and chief executive officer at Addvocate, which helps companies humanize their brand experience by enabling all employees to engage with customers. A recognized leader is social media marketing, Marcus holds a patent for technology that determines someone’s brand influence, wrote the original specifications and helped build the prototype of Salesforce Chatter, and is an expert in user-experience design. Follow Marcus on Twitter: @addvocate