Scaling journalism

On Tuesday, I wrote a short post arguing that the decline in the U.S. newspaper industry was anything but "unavoidable". A "broad study by a group of respected journalists" had come to the conclusion that there was little or nothing any of us could have done in the 1990s to prevent widespread disruption. I strongly disagreed.

The news that Amazon co-founder Jeff Bezos had bought the Washington Post was already public when I responded to the study. People have lots of opinions about Bezos owning the Post: he is “bad news”; he thinks “paperboys may be more important than reporters”; and “he’s buying lots of political influence.”

I have no idea what Jeff Bezos plans to do with the Washington Post, but I’m hard-pressed to get upset about media outlets falling into the hands of individuals and families. The Taylors owned the Globe before the New York Times sailed it over the cliff; the Sulzbergers are virtually synonymous with the Times; and of course the Grahams are a family legacy for the Post. Bezos joins the media elite. Welcome (well, congratulations).

It does strike me that Jeff Bezos may be the kind of leader who actually helps the Post reinvent the newspaper model. Rather than whine about disruption, they might learn to embrace approaches that scale journalism by turning it into something people value more than once.

This is the thinking that I first started writing about last year, with posts that included “Acts of journalism” and “Your daily dataset”. The latter post built on work by Esther Dyson, who also has been searching for ways to make journalism something more than “write once, read once”.

Responding to Post sale, Julius Genachowski and Steve Waldman recently wrote that “Newspapers should be more like Amazon”. Genachowski is a former chair of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and Waldman is the author of an FCC report on the “Information needs of communities”. They write in part:

For instance, when a newspaper writes a series about local schools, it provides the same information to every reader. When a newspaper creates a searchable database about the quality of local schools, and gives each reader the ability to select the variables they care most about, then the paper is tailoring the reporting to each reader. One database creates a thousand stories.

Of course, the two options are not mutually exclusive. Reporting on schools relies on and generates data; a database structured to capture and report that information offers value only when the information is current and otherwise not replaceable.

Genachowski and Waldman note that Bezos leads Amazon by emphasizing “long-term thinking, customer obsession, and willingness to invent”. I don’t know if Jeff Bezos will bring these same values to the Washington Post, but I have to agree with Genachowski and Waldman that these are “[p]recisely the ones the news industry now needs.”

A bit of disclosure: In 2007, Magellan provided consulting support to Beliefnet, a company Steve Waldman co-founded. He served as its CEO at the time of our assignment.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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