Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is a welcome addition to journalism
By Don Tapscott
There’s been much speculation as to why Jeff Bezos stepped out of his day job as Amazon founder and CEO and bought the venerable Washington Post with $250 million from his personal bank account. Some have posited that newspapers are joining professional sports teams as a hobby for billionaires. One pundit suggested that Bezos was building a foundation for a run at the U.S. presidency, while another suggested he wants more clout in Washington. Another suggested he recognizes that the newspaper industry is broken and he wants to be part of building tomorrow’s industry.
Regardless of his motivation, Bezos’ purchase is significant. Few American newspapers have such an august history as the Washington Post. It was the Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who broke the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s that forced president Richard Nixon to resign. The paper ranks with the New York Times and Wall Street Journal in terms of journalistic clout and ability to shape political discourse.
It is interesting but ultimately incidental that Bezos chose to buy the Post with personal funds rather than using Amazon money. This way he didn’t have to justify his purchase to Amazon’s board of directors or shareholders at the next annual general meeting. Using his personal bankroll keeps life simpler for Bezos and gives him greater latitude to try new ideas.
However, it would not be unprecedented for Amazon to directly invest in journalism. In 2007 the company bought the privately owned digital photography websitedpreview.com, which provides forums for camera buffs worldwide to have earnest discussions on whether Nikon is better than Canon. The website’s depth and breadth of technical research was given a big boost by Amazon and the site now attracts an industry-leading 7 million readers a month. The website provides the hard facts, and then the readers provide the bulk of the content. This could be instructive.
The Post and newspapers in general will benefit from Bezos’ involvement, since the status quo is untenable. Newspapers are throwing reporters overboard to stay afloat but they continue to lose money. Many quality papers have gone out of business, which is not healthy. Newspapers play a vital role. Good papers keep the public informed and provide expert comment on many aspects of our lives. They fund investigative journalism. Toronto, home to four English-language daily papers, doesn’t know just how lucky it is. So how can we inform ourselves as a society when the old vehicles for doing so are collapsing?
I can say with certainty that tomorrow’s newspaper won’t be delivered to your doorstep. Yesterday’s news on dead trees is not a sustainable business model for large dailies. I don’t know a single newspaper owner who disagrees with this assertion, but that is about all they can agree on. Read more in the Toronto Star.