Where no publisher has gone before
By Alberto Mingardi
As he already revolutionized logistics, floored old fashioned retailers, and made a bookstore a thriving business, expectations are very high for Jeff Bezos as the new publisher of Washington Post. Certainly newspapers might need a little bit of creative destruction, particularly the creative part that seems to be missing in this field. Much has been written on Bezos lately. The Economist points towards a growing interest in the newspaper industry by conspicuous investors:
He (Bezos) is not alone in showing interest in the sector. Last year Warren Buffett’s firm, Berkshire Hathaway, bought a host of newspapers from Media General. The headline for the state of America’s newspapers may be a grim one, but some of them are successfully charging more for their content, either online or in print (by raising cover prices). Last year total revenue for American newspapers only declined 2%. Some think the newspaper industry may be finally reaching a bottom. Perhaps Mr Bezos is one of them.
As The Economist suggests that newspapers may have reached the bottom, and thus a rebound of some sort may be in sight, Virginia Postrel takes a very different perspective. In a compelling column that refers to her experience as the editor of Reason magazine, she argues that
Now the future of journalism depends on the model I knew so well in the 1990s: patrons and amateurs. The patrons underwrite a relatively small cadre of professionals, while the amateurs use other sources of income to subsidize their work.
This seems to me a not implausible forecast of the evolution of the news market, as the Internet is shaping it. Sources of news are more varied and diverse, we tend to devote an increasing share of our time to read bloggers vis-à-vis newspaper columnists, Google Reader may be gone, but we cook our daily news meal largely by ourselves. The newspaper is essentially a blend of information and comments, brought together by some professionals to the benefit of their readers: these professionals are those that traditionally selected “All the News That’s Fit to Print”, to the benefit of their reader. This role they play is by and large questioned by alternative media.
But blogs don’t belong to Mars and newspapers don’t belong to Venus. We’ll necessarily see in the coming years profound changes, but the future of the printed word isn’t necessarily gloomy. Postrel suggests that what is in crisis is an advertisment-based business model, whereas patrons and amateurs may actually give us a rejuvenated, more reader-oriented journalism.
Journalism supported by patrons and amateurs will, of necessity, be more diverse: in content, style, viewpoint, reliability and organizational forms.
To be clear, I won’t bet that the likes of Bezos will do away with profits. They do certainly need profits as signals, particularly as they are engaged in a very difficult endeavor. But after all patrons have been historically very important in supporting culture of all kinds–therefore I do not see any reason why they shouldn’t try with daily news. A wider variety of business models, particularly for a business that has problems in imagining its own future, is certainly a plus. Bezos may be more interested in the Post for prestige reasons, for growing his reputation, or just for a romantic attachment to paper, but if he brings his ingenuity in the sector he may still teach some lessons to others–who may pick them up entrepreneurially, and try to work on them to extract profits. Thanks to Mr Bezos, the future of newspapers already looks brighter to many. We’ll see.