It’s been fascinating to watch the cheerleading that’s gone on since the announcement that the Graham family was selling The Washington Post to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.
When the announcement was made, the reaction from technologists and Web journalists was pretty reflexive. Many out there are describing Bezos as a savior, as the person who will finally help The Post get its digital act together. Lots of cheerleading about the possibilities with new packaging, and the “bold” business acumen of Bezos.
We’ve seen letters to Bezos from former Posties and declarations of hope from former Posties who worked for Bezos. We’ve seen a little finger-wagging from current Posties as well as a long parade of sentimentalism praising Don Graham, and reminiscing of a time gone by.
It seems we’ve seen both ends of the spectrum — cheerleading from technologists and other journalists who seem almost giddy that a rich tech guru will become a major media player — and those lamenting the end of an era.
Where’s the healthy skepticism?
It’s been hard to find. As another former employee of the Post Company (I worked at washingtonpost.com from 1996-2006) I’m also curious as to how this new transition will work out but I’ve hesitated to jump on the Bezos bandwagon.
There have been a few out there who have registered concerns. Jeff Jarvis tweeted: “One thing about Bezos and a newspaper: He is no proponent of openness. A more secretive tech company it’s hard to find.” And, Christopher Mims tweeted: “Jeff Bezos now owns both Washington Post, $600 million server cloud for CIA. That won’t be a conflict of interest.”
And, Felix Salmon pointed out some basic management issues that may not sit well at The Post: “It (Amazon) also employs, mostly indirectly, thousands of workers in warehouses around the world, picking and packaging the goods it sells; those workers are treated badly, and enjoy effectively zero slack in their working lives.”
Yet, it’s been difficult to hear any real analysis amongst the cacophony of cheerleaders saying Bezos will create a Post where the readers will finally get what they want (like with Amazon.) What exactly does that mean? More coverage of the Royals? More video of car chases? More shallow news of the weird?
There’s been plenty of commentary about what a technologist like Bezos can bring to a company like The Washington Post. And, yes, after stagnating for the past 15 years, The Post will finally have to change its business model and those not on board with a “digital-first” mindset will not last long.
But, what about the journalism? Yes, The Post was a great newspaper but just because the delivery mode is changing doesn’t mean the journalism should.
The real questions for Bezos have not been asked — or answered.
Will he invest in a timely, costly investigative pieces?
Will he devote time and resources to foreign reporting?
Will he re-open bureaus that have been closed in the past decade as cost-cutting measures?
Some have described Bezos as a bottom-line kind of guy, well the bottom-line is that good investigative journalism takes time and money. And, Bezos won’t see much return on his investment, unless you can start quantifying “afflicting the comfortable” and holding government accountable.
Since the onset of Web journalism, there has been a wrestling match over the role of journalists and editors. The gatekeeping role has disappeared — no longer do journalists and editors determine what the user/consumer should read. The Great Decoupling, as JD Lasica put it. That unwillingness to give up the gatekeeping role and create new roles hurt The Post and many other news organizations.
But, it’s beginning to feel like the pendulum needs to swing back a little. We live in a scary, secretive time where the idea of privacy is laughable and where the public, press, and judiciary all seem to support the right of the government to eavesdrop and collect information on the citizenry at will. Jay Rosen recently asked how we can get ourselves back to an informed citizenry.
Jeff Bezos can go a long way to doing that by investing in journalism. I think many are hoping he will. We’ll see.