Memo to Old Media: The End is Near (What’s Behind The Washington Post Sale to Jeff Bezos?)

Memo to Old Media: The End is Near (What’s Behind The Washington Post Sale to Jeff Bezos?)

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Stop the presses.  No, really.

This has been happening so frequently, it should stop being a shock.  In the early 1990s, the combination of a 24-hour news cycle (courtesy of the fax machine and CNN) and the speed of online delivery (even through 300-baud modems) got futurists talking about a day when there would no longer be print.  In fact, those projections started shortly after the Second World War, accelerated with the first nodes of Darpanet, and became credible with the first personal computers.  In my first PR job after graduating from Syracuse, as head of PR at Clarkson University, we were promoting a “library of the future”  – which in 1980 meant something along the lines of microfiche meets the earliest glimmers of personal computing.  New York Times columnist Russell Baker devoted an entire Sunday column to us and the prospect of a bookless library, mourning the loss of “composing room wizards – clothes tattered by splashes of molten lead – who could spot spelling mistakes in a page of type set backwards” in favor of “little, green arthritic-looking letters and numbers across a dark screen.”

More than 25 years later, this same elder statesman of editorial – as acerbic a wit as ever in his 80s – published an obituary for the daily newspaper in the esteemed New York Review of Books in 2007, noting that a new digital generation regarded traditional newspapers with ink on paper as having the relevance of “a horse-drawn buggy on an eight-lane interstate.”

Since then, the Old Guard has been repeatedly rocked: the multi-Pulitzer-winning Rocky Mountain News vacating its 250,000-hard-copy circulation in Denver to become a digital-only publication as the only way to stay solvent; the last print issue of Newsweek in late 2012 (and three sales of the brand in less than two years, the first one for $1).  This past weekend, news broke of the fire sale (at more than a billion dollar loss) of the Boston Globe by theNew York Times to Boston Red Sox owner John Henry (on her MSNBC television show shortly after the announcement, Rachel Maddow noted how financially troubled sports teams used to be propped up in their community by rich local newspaper barons, rather than vice versa, as is increasingly the case).

And now this, the purchase of the nation’s leading political voice by the man most responsible for turning books into electrons, Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos (who was laughed at by some angel investors when he pitched the idea of selling books over the Internet less than two decades ago).  In the world of 2013, however, where more people have a smartphone globally than clean drinking water, and the people you most want to advertise to are turning first and foremost to their tablets and Kindles, who is it that’s still waiting at the front door for the kid around the corner to throw a soggy newspaper on your doorstep at 5 a.m., breathlessly telling you yesterday’s news? (To that point, in 2009, Jason Jones toured the New York Times and asked them why they preferred “aged news” to fresh news – much to the amazed aggravation of the Gray Lady senior staffers being interviewed (http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-june-10-2009/end-times).

Surely, the writing should have already been on the wall (or tablet) as soon as all the paper-based technology publications went out-of-print, one by one, starting with Omni and Byte in the late 1990s, to InfoWorld and the million-strong PC Magazine, a decade later) – simply unable to compete with the rising tide of well-written, globally sourced blogs like TechCrunch and Mashable, who had quickly grown audiences ten times their size with none of the legacy overhead.

For every commentary in the past few hours that this purchase is an attempt at sociopolitical influence from someone stuck hopelessly underneath the politically irrelevant Space Needle are others opining that he dramatically overpaid for last century’s brand in an era filled with Politico and Daily Kos (all three are Top 1000 sites, but only the blogs are low-overhead and either profitable currently or on a sustainable path to profitability, unlike the esteemed WaPo print edition).

Time will tell what the future of the nation’s political newspaper of record will be under Bezosian ownership.  Good bets are a hands-off editorial policy and dramatic innovation on the digital front.  But just as nobody truly misses papers being hawked on street corners, the world will soon forget they ever read the news in a static format that came from trees.

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2014-07-30 07:11:02