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Sorry, Jeff Bezos, the news bundle isn’t coming back

September 6, 2013

By Timothy B. Lee

Jeff Bezos visits The Washington Post newsroom. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Jeff Bezos visits The Washington Post newsroom. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

This week, journalists at The Washington Post (including, full disclosure, me) got our first look at our new boss’s vision for The Washington Post. There was a lot to like. Bezos emphasized the importance of a focus on the long term, dedication to readers and learning from scrappy upstarts like Business Insider. But part of Bezos’s vision for The Post represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the online news business — and what it will take for The Post to thrive in it.

“The problem is how do we get back to that glorious bundle that the paper did so well?” Bezos asked at a question-and-answer session with Post journalists.

Bezos lauded the “daily ritual” of reading the morning newspaper over coffee. “That daily ritual is incredibly valuable, and I think on the Web so far, it’s gotten blown up.”

But that daily ritual got blown up for good reason. Trying to recreate the “bundle” experience in Web or tablet form means working against the grain of how readers, especially younger readers, consume the news today. In the long run, it’s a recipe for an aging readership and slow growth.

Joy’s Law

Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy once said that “no matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.” That’s why the smartest executives, especially in the technology sector, are constantly looking outside the boundaries of their own firm for good ideas.

Joy’s Law has a corollary for the news business: No matter how good your news organization is, most of the best journalism is being done somewhere else. That’s because no publication, even storied outlets such as the New York Times or The Washington Post, can hope to hire a majority of the world’s most talented journalists.

And this is why the smartest readers have increasingly eschewed “bundled” news outlets in favor of third-party aggregators that provide them with links to the best news from around the Web. In the early years, the most tech-savvy users used RSS readers. Then news aggregators like Google News, Digg and Reddit began to appear.

In the past five years, aggregation has been democratized by social media. A growing number of younger readers don’t actively seek out news at all. Instead, they read the news that’s recommended to them by friends on Facebook and Twitter.

That’s more convenient, because most young people are spending time on Facebook and Twitter anyway. More importantly, it serves as a finely honed news filter. Probably the best predictor of what news stories you’re going to want to read is what news stories your friends and colleagues found interesting.

If this trend continues, and I think it will, then the future of news is one of radical unbundling. A large share of every publication’s traffic will come from referrals from third-party aggregators, and the key to success will be crafting content that performs well on these sites. Readers who prefer to read a publication’s news “bundle” from front to back will represent an aging and shrinking demographic.

The power of Facebook

In yesterday’s Q&A, Bezos was dismissive of this approach to news. “If our readers read a couple of articles through the Web or Google News, a couple per month, that’s a small business,” he said. But this ignores another corollary to Joy’s Law: No matter how popular your news site’s home page (or tablet app) is, most readers are going to rely on someone else’s site to decide which news stories to read. There are about 200 million adults in the United States. If every American read two Washington Post articles per month, that would amount to 400 million monthly page views. I’m not privy to The Post’s own traffic statistics, but for comparison, the most popular blog on the Los Angeles Times Web site, LA Now, got less than 20 million page views in February, its best month ever to that point. Two visits a month from each American would represent a large boost in the L.A. Times’ readership.

And there’s no reason to think that’s an upper bound on the amount of traffic that can be generated by links from other sites. The average American reads a lot more than two articles per month, so a publication with a knack for producing articles that people like to share should easily be able to entice the average reader a lot more than twice a month. Read more in the Washington Post.

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