When Jeffrey Bezos, founder and chairman of Amazon.com, laid down $250 million to purchase The Washington Post, one of the most important journalistic enterprises in the world, people, understandably, had questions. What did this Internet retailer know about the newspaper business?
The primary impact of Amazon on the world of publishing has been about the same as it has been on many other businesses: a massive beat-down. Those local stores that managed to survive suburbanization, mall-ization, and WalMart-ization were now confronted by an even greater competitor: a company that enjoys a global clientele, pays a pittance in rent and taxes, and does sufficient volume to be able to undersell anybody and everybody. It is a measure of this catastrophe, but of little consolation to the “mom and pop” stores on Main Street, that they are hardly the only victims. They’ve are now joined in the life raft by many of the big box stores. Circuit City? Borders? Swept away. While we were busy lamenting the loss of the beloved local shops where one might not only purchase books, clothing, and music, but might actually have the opportunity to engage a human being in conversation – perhaps even ask a question! – Hurricane Amazon changed the entire economic geography of America.
While the book publishing industry had, like every other industry in the world, seen a steady stream of mergers and consolidations, the Amazon onslaught made such consolidation less a matter of competitive advantage of more a question of survival. If you’re going up against Amazon, size is not (to paraphrase the thickheaded but practical Vince Lombardi) everything, it’s the only thing. Quality? Personal service? Amazon has relegated these concepts to the dustbin of history.
As far rich people’s toys are concerned, a newspaper has always had a certain appeal. Any piece of owned property can bestow pride and profit, but a newspaper is a public megaphone with few rivals for power and prestige. William Randolph Hearst was hardly the only mogul to understand this (James Gordon Bennett and Joseph Pulitzer preceded him), but he was the first to seize the full power of the press to feed his own ego and ambition. Not satisfied to merely influence public opinion, Hearst realized that this tail could wag the dog of national policy. He didn’t just create reading material, he made wars.
I’m not suggesting that Bezos is in the same class as Hearst or his contemporary step-children in media manipulation, Rupert Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi, but exactly what class (other than upper-upper 1%) is he in? This guy knows how to run an efficient warehouse without wasting money on air conditioning in summer of heat in winter. He knows how to keep a strict ceiling on wages (other than his own, of course). He knows how to avoid taxes. What interest might this titan of click-commerce have in producing news?
In view of these understandable questions, Bezos followed the news of his purchase with a pilgrimage to the newsroom to face his new employees and assuage their concerns. He told the assembled parties that he was really, really committed to quality journalism. Being in the presence of people who make their living with words, one would think Bezos would choose his carefully. What he said, among other things, was, “Getting a subscription to the Washington Post should be as easy as buying diapers on Amazon.”
I, for one, am not reassured.
First of all, selling newspapers is not like selling diapers, or any other product for that matter. Journalism is the only professional practice that is afforded protection by the U.S. Constitution, and rightfully so. Without a functioning system of news-gathering and dissemination, along with a repository for previously published stories, democracy is simply not viable. This is not the place for a discussion about the benefits of print in comparison to broadcast or Internet news, but there are a couple of quick things to be said. First, the title of Danny Schechter’s book The More You Watch the Less You Know is not ironic…it is the simple truth about television news. Second, although the Internet contains an amazing amount of information and opinion, unless you are on the reliable website of an established, credible news organization, it is a risky proposition. News on the Web is a cornucopia without a context and, as such, is as tool that does as much harm as good.
Second, the diaper analogy is a bit disturbing. In a situation in which Bezos was trying to demonstrate his respect for the journalistic profession, to compare a newspaper subscription to plastic repository for shit can only be seen as a Freudian slip. I would wager that Bezos actually has less respect for writers and editors than the average parent has for poop.
I suppose we should suspend judgment until Bezos begins to play with his new toy. It’s not as if the Post wasn’t in decline, editorially and financially. But the Post is a venerable newspaper and its role in the nation’s capitol, and therefore on national politics, cannot be overstated. I cannot help but think that Bezos’ takeover is just the first of many of stories in which the news is mostly bad.
-- Gary Kenton