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On Monday, Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, agreed to buy US newspaper the Washington Post for $250 million, or £163 million. Bezos is well known as being one of the first to prophesy the death of print and his mission to digitize the printed page makes his acquisition of the Post extremely interesting, as well as paving the way for change in the news industry.
Primarily, what it does suggest is that the newspaper is not dead yet. Despite the dawn of hundreds of news blogs on the internet, for Bezos to pay a quarter of a billion dollars for a newspaper must mean that they remain important in journalism, at least for now. Bezos has a history of innovating to make things simpler: Amazon allowed you to buy anything without leaving your house, and the Kindle allowed you to carry hundreds of books in the size of one. Many must hope he will do something similar for the newspaper. It is no secret that newspapers have been struggling to keep advertisers on their page, and with circulation dropping, Bezos's investment has come at a crucial time to keep the paper alive.
However, paying such a large sum for what is essentially a dying newspaper suggests Bezos has bigger plans. Some have speculated Bezos has purchased the brand of the Washington Post to enhance his reputation, as it was the Post that broke the famous Watergate scandal, but I think this is too simple for Bezos. This purchase could well be part of a larger strategy to change the way people consume newspapers as a whole, to fix the great problem of newspaper decline. The temporary solution has been found in tablet applications, but these are not nearly as profitable for the newspaper companies. Whatever the future for the Washington Post, given Bezos's background, it will be digital.
The big question is, what does this mean for journalism in the future? Well, if other investors follow in Bezos's footsteps, it has the potential to do something great. With digital news giants online, correctly and efficiently run, producing the best news and opinion, the current patchwork of blogs could transform into a unified, digital journalist utopia. News will never be dead, but the newspaper will, and Bezos seems to have a replacement in the works. It may also buck the trend of shorter, more frequent, online articles and provide a place for more long-form journalism. Longer articles are only just beginning to take off online (aided, perhaps, by the emergence of read it later services), but with a truly digital newspaper, longer articles may well become the norm. All in all, what may seem a small move could well have larger effects on how we receive our news.
The Huffington Post is a prime example of what news could become. It is not so much a newspaper as a content aggregator, and has been met with great success since its 2005 launch. Because of its online nature, the Huffington Post has extended beyond that of a standard political newspaper, and has become a place not only to read about politics but to discuss and debate as well. Journalists can immediately see the effect their article has had on their readership, and observe the debate. You could argue this fulfills one of the key ideas of journalism: to promote comment and debate on key issues through your published work.
The Huffington Post, though not new, represents a different way people interact with the news, and if anything it is this that will guide the path of journalism in the future. It is not so much what the journalists write as to how the readers interact with the content that makes a newspaper special or different; and I think in finding a way to make this interaction unique, a solution for the dying newspapers will be found.
That being said, Bezos is walking down a dangerous road. The purchase of the Post was clearly a personal venture, with no affiliation with Amazon, and this could lead to a more experimental newspaper. In the long-term, this is great, but in the short term, for people who love the Washington Post and its history, change is a terrible thing. This is the dilemma that faces all other newspapers: moving more towards a digital paper gets new readers, but also loses many old readers. Soon, all readers will be comfortable with a digital paper, but until then, aggressively pushing a digital strategy will be tricky. If done wrong, Bezos risks putting a dent in his reputation, but if done well it will improve his image hugely in the public eye. Only time will tell to see if his all-or-nothing adventure pays off.
There can be no argument that the internet has radically altered the way people receive and react to news, but it is by no means perfect. For every golden online news piece, there are hundreds of awful gossip articles, but this is set to change. Bezos's experimental purchase is hopefully an attempt to create something new, but serious. This will promote not only journalism, but consistently high quality journalism, which will give the entire industry a better image. Change may well be hard for the ancient dinosaurs of news, but it is necessary and must happen for easily accessible, quality journalism to carry on.