Print Publishing In the Mobile Age: Phoenix or Supernova?

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When Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post, an event that closely followed John Henry’s purchase of The Boston Globe, several journalists leaped forward to try to explain why a wildly successful, somewhat reclusive businessman on the West Coast would buy up an East Coast, old media icon. Since Bezos himself offers very few interviews, including none about the acquisition, speculative analysis is pretty inviting. I’ll share three of the ones I’ve seen the most. I disagree with both.

  1. Bezos, Henry, and others who have succeeded in the digital age view professional journalism as a public good and believe it needs sustaining, regardless of the economics.
  2. These same people seek influence, especially political muscle, which they can secure by controlling a major media company. The same was said about Rupert Murdoch when he purchased The Wall Street Journal.
  3. Digital winners feel some guilt for hastening the decline of old media.

I dispute the notion that newspapers and magazines serve a purpose akin to public utilities, and there are much cheaper ways of protecting one’s interests in Washington. I also don’t think wildly successful capitalists feel regret when their companies win, even at the expense of long-held industry structures and norms.

The real reason, I believe, that Bezos and other new media mavens have gone long on old media assets is simple: access to vast amounts of customer data, generated as a result of the production of high-quality content that for decades served a vibrant market and, in some cases, continues to generate cash, even its diminished state. Because these businesses have seen revenues decline because they have not successfully navigated the massive transition to digital, much less mobile, many are available on the cheap. This is why Bezos and others are buying.

In the 1940s, according to this syllabus’ citing of a University of Maryland time-use study, over 80 percent of the adult population read newspapers. How things have changed. Today, according to the fifth slide of Mary Meeker’s 2013 Internet Trends report, American’s spent just six percent of their media consumption on print in 2012. The industry has tried to manage the massive sea change in customer behavior by offering digital and mobile variants of their products, but their transition from the dead tree business to digital and mobile has not generated enough revenue to compensate for declines in print. Alexa, a service that ranks top websites, shows that the most popular site among newspapers is The New York Times, which ranks as the just 35th most popular online destination in the U.S.

I believe that Bezos is confident that an approach to professional journalism that is not predicated on having a print product can succeed. Though Kara Swisher and others have tried to glean his state of mind and even encourage certain approaches to the business, Bezos’ letter to Post employees makes his intentions pretty clear when he writes, “There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy. We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment. Our touchstone will be readers, understanding what they care about – government, local leaders, restaurant openings, scout troops, businesses, charities, governors, sports – and working backwards from there.” (I’ve added italics for emphasis.) That’s as clear a summation of a data-driven approach to publishing that I’ve ever come across.

I predict that Bezos will attach measurement to every aspect of the new Post’s news and analysis operations. He will augment reader information that almost certainly includes detailed demographics with a segmentation model that can predict what types of users prefer what sorts of content, when, and on what devices. He will then be able to offer advertisers inventory that delivers higher value engagement while not turning off customers in ways so many of us can relate to, as in “why did someone think I’d be interested in this product being advertised to me?” In this way, the Post’s content producers – writers, photographers, and editors – can continue doing what they do well, while the business does a better job of delivering it and assessing its health. The print product may not disappear, but it will change and support Bezos’ ambition for relentless measurement.

If he succeeds, and I believe that someone like him will find a way to successfully monetize professional journalism in a digital and mobile world, then he will have paved a way forward for other newspapers and magazines.

History shows that Americans crave professional news. I argue that their diminished appetite for a printed product is mostly a reflection of a strong and growing preference for consuming this content in other, non-printed formats. There is nothing preventing the likes of The Washington Post and many others like it from vaulting from laggard to leader if they can allow themselves to re-imagine their product.

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